As the name implies, gray catbirds are slate gray in color with ruddy undertail coverts (small feathers covering the tail feathers on the bird’s underside), distinctive black cap and long black tail. Males and females are similar in appearance. They grow to a length of eight to 9.25 inches with a wingspread of 11 to12 inches. Weight ranges from 0.75 to 1.5 ounces.
Gray catbirds are easily identified by their call – a nasal, cat-like mew. Occasionally their call is a grating kak-kak-kak or a soft, mellow chuck. They are often heard singing at night, and they may imitate calls of other bird species such as jays, quails, hawks, and whip-poor-wills. Gray catbirds are also referred to as: black mockingbird, black-capped thrush, cat flycatcher, chicken bird and slate-colored mockingbird
Range: Gray catbirds are found throughout Canada south through the central and eastern parts of the United States. Winters are spent along the Gulf States south to Mexico and Panama. The gray catbird migrates through the eastern plains in May, but suitable dense shrubbery exists only in isolated pockets on the plains. The largest concentrations of breeding pairs in Colorado are in riparian corridors with thick underbrush in the eastern foothills from Fort Collins to Trinidad; and in a few mid-elevation riparian corridors in western Colorado. Look for gray catbirds in the late summer in areas with ripening chokecherries where the birds gorge themselves to build fat reserves before their migration south.
Habitat: They prefer dense thickets of shrubby edge habitat but also inhabit shrubs, briars, vines along woodland borders, dry marsh edges, roadside shrubs, old house sites, abandoned fields and fence rows. They require low, dense, shrubby vegetation. Like all other thrushes, gray catbirds are very fond of bathing and roll themselves in the dust or sand of roadsides or fields. Several are often seen together on the borders of small ponds splashing in the water before going to the nearest bush or tree to dry off.
Diet: Their diet consists primarily of insects such as beetles, caterpillars, cicadas, crickets, moths, ants, aphids and spiders, which they glean from the ground. They also eat a variety of fruit and grass seeds in the fall.
Reproduction: Males arrive on the nesting grounds a few days before the females and immediately begin singing from the tops of thickets or in the brush. With their tail depressed and their body low to the perch, they sing sweet varied phrases occasionally mixed with harsher notes: eweet, twit-twit-twit, cherooeekee, tereet, erokeet. They breed from late April to mid-August. The nest is a mass of sticks, weed stems, grasses, leaves and twigs. The cup may be lined with pine needles, rootlets, fine shreds of bark and horsehair. It is neatly arranged in a circular fashion and can be found in a shrub, tree, or dense vegetation near a creek, typically three to 15 feet above the ground. The female will lay two to three glossy, dark green-blue eggs and incubate them for 12 to15 days. The young leave the nest when they are between 10 and 15 days old. Gray catbirds often raise two broods in one season. The second brood is usually smaller.
For more information, see the Natural Diversity Information Source species profile.