Catbird PS_IMG_8185

Text and photos by Peter Vankevich

The Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) is a slender medium-sized song bird. It is overall dark gray with a black cap and tail and a brick colored under tail. Both sexes look alike.

It is famous for a distinctive call note from which it derives its name and sounds like a cat’s meow.

Catbirds are mimics and the song is a rambling series of single phrases that consists of a series of squeaks, croaks and parts of other bird songs and does not appear to have much structure. Because of its well-developed syrinx, the catbird is able to make two sounds at the same time. The other mimics on the island are the Brown Thrasher which sings in double phrases and the Northern Mockingbird which usually repeats songs of other birds and other sounds  about four times.  Males may sing in concealed bushes but may also perch at the tops of trees and bushes

Catbirds are migratory and breed throughout much of the United States except for the Southwest and West and well into Canada. They winter in the South and along the Atlantic Coast into Mexico. Flight migration is usually at night.

Best Time to see:  Can be seen year round, but mostly from spring into the late fall and early winter. Far fewer on the island from mid-December till spring.

Where: Throughout the island including the village wherever there are dense thickets, vines and shrubs.


(Audio provided courtesy of OhioLINK Digital Resource Commons)

Birds of the Outer Banks Checklist


Although Brown-headed Cowbirds parasitize the Gray Catbird, they rarely are successful. This bird is one of only about a dozen species known to recognize cowbird eggs and eject them from its nest.

Catbirds can reside in human-associated locations if there is suitable habitat.

The feeding instincts are strongly developed in catbirds, and if they have lost their own young through some misfortune, they may adopt the offspring of others. Ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent (1866 – 1954) is notable for an encyclopedic 21-volume work, Life Histories of North American Birds. He cited a case of a brood of orphaned cardinals that were fed and mothered by a catbird, and another where a mother catbird fed a half-grown flicker that had been dislodged from its nest and separated from its parents during a severe storm.

“In the catbird seat” is a common phrase to describe someone who is in an advantageous situation.  Its origin is from the James Thurber short story Catbird Seat published in 1942.  The phrase was attributed to Red Barbers’ colloquial and creative baseball radio broadcasts to describe situations such as a batter with a 3-0 count.



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  1. I love the birds of Ocracoke. I’d like to see something about the Inca Dove (I think it is) that coos incessantly. I’ve never heard them anywhere else. But I especially love to see the Glossy and White Ibises.

  2. Interesting note about the Catbird/Cowbird relationship. I wonder how/why Catbird’s recognize the Cowbird’s egg but not many other species do? I never noticed the red under the tail of the Catbirds up here. I’ll take a closer look. Thanks for the info, Peter!

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