Catbird often heard but seldom seen

One of the most delightful birds we have inhabiting our yards and woods is the talented and little-known catbird. Because it likes to spend most of its time concealed in shrubbery and thickets, its presence is not as obvious to the casual bird watcher as that of other feathered denizens of the back yard. Nearly everyone is unaware of the range and diversity of the catbird’s vocal abilities.

There are many students of nature who think the only sound a catbird can make is one similar to the mewing of a cat. They refuse to believe the beautiful and resonant songs emanating from the shrubbery around the yard are vocalizations produced by this bird.

The voice of the catbird is almost as fine and varied as that of its cousin, the mockingbird. Unfortunately, however, its renditions often include many harsh notes that are interrupted by “catcalls.” It is not aesthetically pleasing to the human ear to hear the catbird’s sweet song abruptly terminated by sounds that may resemble the squawking of a chicken, the spitting and hissing of a cat, or the cry of a lost hen.

The catbird is a sleek gray bird about nine inches in length with a darker tail and black skullcap, and it is a member of the family of birds that includes the mocking bird and the thrasher. Members of this group of birds have special anatomical adaptations that especially endow them as delightful songsters.

The voice box of birds is not the same as the larynx with its vocal cords we find in mammals. The sound-producing organ in birds is called the syrinx and is found only in feathered animals. The syrinx is located at the lower end of the trachea or windpipe, where the two bronchi branch to each of the lungs.

Shaped somewhat like a trumpet, the syrinx contains a set of membranes that produce a variety of sounds when vibrated. Pairs of syringeal muscles determine the extent to which these membrane can be altered. The greater the number of syringeal muscles a bird has, the greater the diversity of its choral abilities. Members of the catbird family have seven pairs of these muscles while most other bird families have far fewer. No wonder the catbird is among nature’s most talented songsters.

The catbird is a skulking busybody who likes to live in close association with man and keep an eye on what its human neighbors are doing. Not only is the catbird interested in human activities, it has an innate curiosity concerning the personal lives of other birds, often taking part in the difficulties that may befall them.

If a predator attacks another bird’s nest, the catbird will sound its characteristic “mew” to give an alarm. Frequently, other catbirds in the vicinity will answer the call and converge to drive off the intruder. Robert Hegner, a famous American zoologist, describes in one of his books on natural history how a group of six to eight catbirds successfully defended the nest of a pair of robins.

A large blacksnake appeared intent on making a meal out of the robins’ nestlings. The intrepid catbirds attacked the snake with such ferocity that it beat a hasty retreat. Catbirds have also been known to adopt orphaned baby birds of their own or other species.

During the warm months of the year, there are catbirds all over the United States and southern Canada east of the Rocky Mountains. But, when autumn leaves come whirling down, most of them in the North pack up and head for the South to avoid the cold and fierce winds of winter. In some mild winters in the upper Midwest, the catbird may hang around all year.

Catbirds feed primarily on insects but will take a bit of fruit or other vegetable matter in season. For some reason they have developed an insatiable appetite for Japanese beetles and gypsy moths, and we need not elaborate on the destruction of various plants these two notorious insect pests can cause. Rarely, if ever, are garden or field crops utilized as food by these very beneficial birds.

As we tend our yard and property, let’s keep the catbird’s habitat in mind and leave it a clump of bushes or a thicket to call its own.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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