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Wendy Paulson’s Birds of Barrington | Gray Catbird

Wendy Paulson’s Birds of Barrington | Gray Catbird

Often when I’m weeding or harvesting in the garden, I hear mewing notes coming from nearby thickets. There is no mistake about the vocalizer. It’s not a cat but a catbird – specifically, a Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis). Catbirds will be our neighbors all summer long. They began to arrive in late April and will begin to depart the Barrington area in September, headed for the Caribbean, southern US, and Mexico where they will spend the late fall and summer months.

Catbirds belong to the family of mimics, birds that imitate other birds’ songs and sounds, such as the Brown Thrasher and Northern Mockingbird. Of the three, the Gray Catbird’s vocalizations are the most difficult to describe. While the thrasher mimics in couplets, and the mockingbird in thrice-repeated phrases, the catbird lets forth a stream of notes and phrases that just keeps going – sometimes for as long as ten minutes. It’s easy to recognize the cat-like mew that gives the bird its name but otherwise the sounds are an aural stew, composed of imitations that only the catbird knows.

When I was living in New York, I read an entry in the weekly NY Times column “Dear Diary” by someone who thought he heard a cell phone ringing from a tree. On further investigation the writer found that it was a Gray Catbird mimicking a cell phone ring. Eminent Illinois ornithologist Robert Ridgeway wrote in his 1889 Birds of Illinois: “In [the catbird’s] performance, there is too much deliberation, and the general effect is that he is merely practicing, during which at times he gets tired of his own voice, and substitutes other sounds which he has heard. These he imitates with tolerable success, but the sounds which he most affects, as the squeal of a young pig, the squeaking of a hinge, or the squall of a cat, are harsh interruptions to a song which might otherwise be pleasing.” Apparently catbirds have added the sounds of cell phones and car alarms to their repertoire.

The catbird is handsome, though pretty much monochromatic, covered with soft gray plumage and a black cap. If the bird raises its tail, it reveals a rufous vent that gives it a splash of color. You frequently hear the Gray Catbird before you see it. Its run-on vocalization of jumbled, erratic notes, emitted from a thick tangle of vegetation, is a giveaway. While the bird may not be immediately visible, it’s usually not difficult to locate.

If you’re intrigued by the species, you can readily find it in the Barrington area – in forest preserves, parks, old fields. Its favored habitat is shrubland and forest edge (its scientific name Dumetella is derived from a word meaning “small shrub”), though you might find one in your own or a neighbor’s yard. The one requirement is dense vegetation where it can build its nest cup of twigs, straw, bark, and grass. If you hear a bird “singing” an indescribable and ever-changing variety of sounds, the Gray Catbird is probably the vocalizer. Its pep, persistence, and ever-changing vocal repertoire make it a wild summer neighbor of special character.

About Wendy Paulson

Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.

Wendy Paulson
Wendy Paulson

During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy.

Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.

CLICK HERE to explore all of the local bird profiles Wendy has authored in our Birds of Barrington series at 365Barrington.com.

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