Columnist: Sneaky like a cat – catbird that is

Published 9:04 am Thursday, July 23, 2009

The other day I was engaged in serious battle with a stand of cattails and reed canary grass down along the creek.  “Arrrrgh, take that … and that,” I was shouting as I wildly flailed away at the seven foot high impenetrable mass with my mega-weed eater.

As another swath of stems fell to my whirling blade right there in my face was a bird nest. Inside were two little featherless chicks, apparently just hours old, and one tiny, powder blue egg. I backed off and shifted my assault on the jungle to another flank. On the next temporary truce I went inside and began shuffling through my egg identification charts to see who the blue egg might belong to. Both the nest and egg were too small for a robin.

I saw goldfinches have blue eggs and the size seemed about right.  Assuming it to be a goldfinch I ceased the search.  The nest was now completely exposed and I feared ma’ might abandon it. A bit later I went out to check. Hoping to see the olive-yellow color of a female goldfinch, I was surprised to see the nest topped with a dark gray form. As I moved closer the gray shape quietly slipped off into the shadows as stealthily as the wiliest cat.

And a cat it was – a catbird, that is.

We all know catbirds get their name from the meow that is part of their extensive song repertoire but their secretive habits are equally cat-like. Catbirds are common throughout the U.S. excepting the Southwest but they are more often heard than seen. They inhabit semi-open areas with dense, low lying brush, the thicker the better. There they go about their daily business in seclusion, only revealing themselves in the open to satiate their addiction, an irresistible vice for berries. Mulberries are their hands down favorite but they relish everything from strawberries and blackberries to honeysuckle and poison ivy berries. That explains why our garden only turned out one batch of strawberry shortcake this year. But one cannot live on dessert alone. Catbirds also eat more than their share of insects, mostly ants, various beetles and spiders. The one exception to their secretive life style is when they are compelled to sing. Then they take stage on the most exposed perch they can find so the entire world can see who is conducting this unique concert.

Catbirds are one of a trio of what’s called mimic thrushes because they imitate vocalizations of other birds and animals. The mockingbird is considered the king of this trio with the brown thrush not far behind. Though the catbird comes in third, he’s no slouch at it. Catbirds do a pretty good rendition of wood thrushes, robins, song sparrows, house wrens, orioles and whip-poor-wills. Thrown in anywhere at random is the meow of a cat, the chirp of a lost chicken, the guttural chug of a frog and the trill of tree frogs. They can even do two notes at the same time. This is because of their syrinx, a bird’s equivalent of a mammal’s vocal cords. The syrinx is below where the windpipe branches going to both lungs, allowing sound to come from each one at the same time.

By human standards the catbird’s song composition lacks any sense of structure or rhythm, it’s just a jumble of notes varying in character and volume. Both the male and female sing. When proclaiming territory they blast it out loud and harsh. When around the nest or if another bird intrudes they do it much softer.

Just as cats are sometimes associated with evil, so too the catbird. They have a nasty inclination to destroy the eggs and nestlings of other birds in the area, particularly harmless neighbors like peewees, song and chipping sparrows. On the plus side in my book, they don’t fall for the cowbird’s trick of laying an egg in their nest. They don’t just put up with it, shove it out or build another nest over it like other birds. They promptly smash it to smithereens.

Carpe diem.

Larry Lyons writes a weekly outdoor column for Leader Publications. He can be reached at