I was rather surprised to hear a soft, kittenish mewing as I walked through the park. Sure, I see free-roaming cats around the neighborhood from time to time but I can’t think of a single instance when I’ve spotted one in the park during daylight hours, and I’m in the park at least twice-a-day. As I scanned the underbrush looking for the source, thinking of what I might use to coax a frightened feline to come out, come out, wherever it was, I realized with relief that I wouldn’t have to make a trip to the animal shelter after all. It’s been a long time since I heard a Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis), and never was I more thrilled by a tune in the trees than on that Sunday morning.
Their cat-call (you can hear it at about the 13 second mark in the video above) may be the world’s easiest to recognize… or perhaps it’s the easiest to misinterpret. Still, once you’ve heard that “meow” you won’t wonder another minute how the catbird caught its moniker. Like their relatives, the mockingbirds and thrashers, these birds are able to copy other sounds and string them together to create a clever mash-up. But their signature song isn’t a case of mimicry—its all their own, shared by every member of the species.
Now that my ears have been re-tuned, I’ve been hearing and seeing catbirds all over town. That’s one more reason to be happy this spring, because this species has been in decline recently in some North American regions. You’d never know it here in Saint Louis this year, though, where it sounds to me like entire litters of catbirds are on the prowl.
If not for that distinctive call, you might not even notice these secretive birds. They don’t like to cross open areas so they stick to the thickets and understory, moving in quick hops and short flights through dense vegetation as they search for insects and berries. At first glance, a catbird’s plumage is unremarkable. But look again and you’ll see a perky black cap and tail accessorizing that gray flannel suit. Look even closer and you’ll see a glowing red-orange patch just beneath the tail. That bright flash of pigment always takes me by surprise and makes me laugh—it’s like catching a glimpse of a colorful thong or boxers peeking out of a staid business suit!
Kieran J. Lindsey, PhD, is an urban wildlife biologist, writer, and personal assistant to her wire-fox terrier, Dash. Kieran is co-author of Urban Wildlife Management, the first textbook on the subject. Additional wildlife career experiences include: Executive Director of the TWRC wildlife rehabilitation and education center (1997-1999, Houston, TX); former columnist for the Houston Chronicle newspaper (The Urban Jungle, 1998-2001); producer, writer, and host of Wild Things Radio!on KUNM-FM (1999-2001, Albuquerque, NM); Emmy® award-winning documentary producer. Currently, Kieran is Director of Virginia Tech's Online Master of Natural Resources program, Managing Editor of the peer-reviewed Journal of Wildlife Rehabilitation, and blogger at nextdoornature.org. She lives and works in Lafayette Square (because the Internet is amazing).