Latest For the Birds column: Gray Catbirds’ time to shine

Photo by Chris Bosak A Gray Catbird perches on a thorny branch in Selleck's/Dunlap Woods in summer 2014.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Gray Catbird perches on a thorny branch in Selleck’s/Dunlap Woods in summer 2014.

Here’s the latest For the Birds column. Thanks for supporting http://www.BirdsofNewEngland.com

It’s a rare summer that goes by without me writing a column about catbirds.

Aside from robins, they are perhaps the dominant songbird of a New England summer. At my new home, chipping sparrows may give them a run for their money, but gray catbirds are certainly a reliable daily sighting.

Throughout much of the year, I feel, the catbird is overlooked. Of course, they are migratory so we don’t even see them during the colder months. Therefore, it’s understandable that we don’t think too much about them in the winter. I have seen a few over the years on Christmas Bird Counts, but that’s pretty rare.

That leaves spring, summer and fall for us to enjoy the gray catbird. In the spring we are overwhelmed with the number of songbirds passing through. Also, the birds that nest in our area start that process in spring, so that’s another demand on our attention. The catbirds arrive in spring to little fanfare.

In the fall our attention is similarly focused on the southward migration. It’s a glorious time of year when adult and first-year birds pass through our parks and backyards in big numbers. Hawks are the stars of the birding world in the fall, but great numbers of ducks and songbirds are also there for the seeing.

But summer is a different story. The migrants, other than perhaps some shorebirds, are nowhere to be seen. Even most of the birds that nest in New England are seen with less frequency in the summer. The nuthatches and titmice that overwhelm our feeding stations in the winter are certainly around but as ubiquitous as in other seasons.

American robins are so plentiful and common in the summer that they almost blend into the landscape. We certainly appreciate the robins, but they lose their “wow” factor after a while.

Suddenly it’s the catbird’s time to shine. They meow like cats from the bushes, sing conspicuously from obvious perches, chase insects along the ground and become one of our most common avian sightings. For a bird that is mostly dark gray, the catbird is a genuine looker. It also sports a black cap and a rusty red undertail covert, which is not always visible.

Many birds are named for what they look like and many birds are named for what they sound like. The gray catbird is named for both. The “gray” in the name obviously comes from the bird’s coloration. The “cat” part comes from the cat-like sound it often makes while hiding in the bushes.

Now is the time to take notice and appreciate this handsome, charismatic bird. The migrants will be back before we know it and catbirds will again be out of the spotlight.

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