by Kyle Sweet, The Sanctuary Golf Club, Florida Master Naturalist
Four Keys to ID
1. Size and Shape – Medium-sized, slender songbird with a long, rounded black tail and narrow bill. Long legged with broad, rounded wings
2. Color Pattern – Gray with small black cap, blackish tail and rich rufous-brown patch under the tail
3. Behavior – Energetic, hopping and flying from branch to branch through thick vegetation. Prefers quick, low flights
4. Habitat – Dense tangles of shrubs, small trees, vines and along forest edges
The Gray Catbird often hides in shrubs and undergrowth, amongst and along the edges of wooded areas. The combination of its quick, low flights and densely covered habitat makes it hard to see. Often, it’s identified before its even seen by the cat-like mewing from which it gets its name.
The Gray Catbird does much of its foraging on the ground, combing the wooded floor flipping leaves and debris in search of insects. However, most of the sightings that I’ve had of this bird have involved this bird enjoying nice dark, ripe berries of the native Marlberry shrub here on Sanibel. One of the great native plants of the island that provide an excellent food source for our winter migratory birds. In addition to foraging on the ground and eating many kinds of wild berries, they will also frequent feeders for the usual seed varieties and well as the oddly mentioned human foods such as doughnuts, cereal and several others.
As mentioned earlier, these vocal birds are often heard well before they are seen. Being a relative of the Mockingbirds and Thrashers, they share that groups vocal abilities and often copy the sounds of other species, combine them and call them their own. Early in the breeding season may be the best time to encounter their song as the male sings constantly throughout the day and often even at night. If a female answers the talented call, posturing, bowing and even a show of the chestnut colored feathers beneath the tail by the male may be in order.
The pair will nest in low, dense shrubs 3-10 feet from the ground in a nest built by the female. Both parents feed the nestlings and the young leave the nest in a quick 10-12 days after hatching.
Whether out enjoying a walk or a ride on Sanibel’s many bike paths, enjoying a round of golf or just peering out from a window to your home landscape, keep your eyes open for that sleek gray songbird with a black cap, the Gray Catbird. The plain bird with a big personality!