Gray Catbird Dumetella carolinensis

Oftentimes, people are confused when they hear a mewing sound coming from the trees with no creature in sight. There is no need to worry! It isn’t a petrified kitten stuck in the branches calling for help. Instead, the animal making these mews is a small, gray bird! The gray catbird appears to be solemn, but it is more energetic than it seems. Flitting its reddish tail, the gray catbird can be seen pecking at insects in the grass or singing in a tree, mimicking other birds. With many animals to compete with, the gray catbird developed many adaptations that help it survive in its habitat and live to the fullest.

Physical Description

The gray catbird is an inconspicuous, elegant bird with many characteristics that make it unique.

It is medium sized, with a length of 8-9” or 20-23 cm (“Gray Catbird” 2017). Its body is slate gray with a chestnut flank, which is the part of the bird under the tail (“Gray Catbird” 2017). The gray catbird’s rounded wings have sheer contour feathers that, under close examination, are found to be slightly darker than the body, but this detail is rarely noticed from a distance. The lower part of the head and the neck are similar in color to the body, and the top of the head is dark, often described as a black cap (“Gray Catbird”). Like its closest relative, the northern mockingbird, the gray catbird has black eyes (“Gray Catbird”). It also has a black beak that is short and thin, which makes it useful for picking insects and berries (“Adaptations”). The tail is long and rounded, and it is dark gray (“Gray Catbird”). It is evenly colored except for the reddish down feathers seen on the flank. Its legs are relatively long and spindly (“Gray Catbird”).

Habitat and Diet

Classified as a consumer, omnivore, and an insectivore, the gray catbird eats a variety of foods that are abundant in its habitat.

  • Habitat - It lives near brush and thorns (“Gray Catbird” 2017). The gray catbird favors dense low vegetation (“Gray Catbird” 2017). It is most common in leafy trees near water, swamps, overgrown fields, and hedges (“Gray Catbird” 2017). It does not prefer to live in thick coniferous woods (“Gray Catbird” 2017)
A possible habitat for the gray catbird
  • Diet - The gray catbird eats mostly insects, such as beetles, ants, caterpillars, moths, flies, and spiders (“Gray Catbird” 2017). It also eats a variety of berries, like holly berries, elderberries, cherries, and blackberries (“Gray Catbird”). Sometimes, it eats vegetables, catches small fish, or eats leftovers from human meals, like doughnut crumbs (“Gray Catbird” 2017).
Some of the elements of a gray catbird's diet, including holly berries, caterpillars, ants, beetles, grasshoppers, and elderberries
  • Factors - In the environment of the gray catbird, there are many biotic (living) and abiotic (nonliving) factors that the gray catbird relies on. The biotic factors that the gray catbird relies on or interacts with are: trees, shrubs, bushes with berries, brown-headed cowbirds and other birds, grass, and insects (“Gray Catbird” 2017). These biotic factors include the diet of the gray catbird, plants in its habitat, and other organisms, like parasites (“Gray Catbird” 2017). Abiotic factors that the gray catbird interacts with are: fallen twigs, strings and other nesting material, the sun, fallen leaves, water and temperature (“Gray Catbird” 2017). They include nesting material, places where the gray catbird finds food, like under leaves, the sun, water, and temperature, which affects migration (“Gray Catbird” 2017).

Voice and behavior

With a voice that makes the gray catbird easy to identify, it as an energetic bird that is hard to forget.

  • Voice - The gray catbird is named for its unique, famous call that resembles the sound of a cat. It sounds like a short, hoarse “mew” (“Gray Catbird” 2017). The gray catbird makes many other sounds, including an irregular pattern of whistles, squeaks, chatters, gurgles, whines and other tones, like “chek-chek-chek” and “quirt” (“Gray Catbird”). It is also common for the gray catbird to imitate other species of birds and include these notes in its song (“Gray Catbird” 2017).
  • Singing behavior - Female gray catbirds sing less frequently than males, and their songs are much quieter (“Gray Catbird”). Males sing in phrases, or long patterns of notes, that combine into a song (“Gray Catbird”). Unlike its relatives, the northern mockingbird and brown thrasher, the gray catbird rarely repeats the phrases that it sings (“Gray Catbird”).
A gray catbird perched on a branch, singing its heart out
  • General behavior - The gray catbird is an active bird that is often seen hopping from one branch to another in dense vegetation (“Gray Catbird”). However, the gray catbird is also cautious and shy, and does not like to fly across open areas where it is easily seen (“Gray Catbird”). It prefers short flights in vegetation that are low to the ground (“Gray Catbird”). When the gray catbird is singing, it perches on branches in low trees or shrubs (“Gray Catbird”).
A gray catbird hiding in the branches, a common position to be seen in
  • Feeding behavior - The gray catbird is a ground forager, which means that it searches for food mostly on the ground (“Gray Catbird”). It is often seen in the grass, searching for insects under fallen leaves (“Gray Catbird” 2017). The gray catbird also feeds on fruits or berries in bushes or in low trees (“Gray Catbird”).
A gray catbird searching for insects under fallen leaves in the grass
  • Territorial behavior - During winter, spring, and summer, the gray catbird protects its territory (“Gray Catbird”). The male will sing louder than its usual volume to warn other birds (“Gray Catbird”). It may also rump the feathers on its breast, spread its tail, and lift its head upward, with its beak open (“Gray Catbird”). If intruders cross the territory, gray catbirds may chase or even attack them, especially during breeding season (“Gray Catbird”). Sometimes, gray catbirds destroy the eggs of other species of birds, if their nests are placed on the gray catbird’s territory (“Gray Catbird”).
A gray catbird defending its territory by rumping the feathers on its breast and pointing its beak at the sky


Over time, the gray catbird developed numerous physical and behavioral adaptations that help it survive better in its environment.

  • Beak shape - The gray catbird has a short, thin beak that helps the bird pick insects and berries off of leaves (“Adaptations”). The beak also allows the bird to flip leaves on the ground as it searches for food in the grass (“Gray Catbird”).
  • Mimicry and mating - The gray catbird mimics many species of birds and even other animals like frogs (“An Expert Mimic”). It is great at remembering the many sounds that it hears as it flies (“An Expert Mimic”). During breeding season, males sing every sound they remember (“An Expert Mimic”). The female catbirds usually breed with the male that can sing the most sounds, that therefore traveled the most (“An Expert Mimic”).
  • Feet - Songbirds like the gray catbird have very few nerves and blood vessels in their small, featherless legs (“Adaptations”). This allows birds to land on any surface of almost any temperature, hot or cold (“Adaptations”). Also, their feet have four toes - three in the front and one in the back - which is ideal for perching on branches (“Adaptations”).
  • Communication - Once a male catbird mates with a female gray catbird, they will stay together to watch over the eggs (Pinkoski and Dewey). While the female incubates the eggs, the male watches over the territory by singing specific calls that warn other birds (“Gray Catbird”).
  • Body motion - Gray catbirds fluff up their breast feathers in two cases. They may fluff their feathers if there is a conflict between two birds, during a competition for a mate for instance (“Gray Catbird”). Or, they also fluff their breast when their chicks hatch - since they are altricial, or helpless, both parents spread their wings and fluff up their breast to provide shade (Pinkoski and Dewey).

Life cycle

From leaving the nest to migrating and mating, a gray catbird’s life is full of challenges and risks.

The gray catbird at stages hatching, juvenile and adult, respectively

1. At birth - The gray catbird hatches out of a turquoise egg, with a few red speckles (“Gray Catbird”) in a nest with usually two or three more hatchlings (Pinkoski and Dewey). The gray catbird can not move without aid and stays helplessly in the nest, crying for food (Pinkoski and Dewey). It has a very specific diet, and is only able to eat small insects (Pinkoski and Dewey). The parents provide as much comfort for their young as they can, giving extra shade and feeding them (Pinkoski and Dewey).

The egg of a gray catbird

2. 10-11 days old - The fledgling is now strong and its wings are dry enough to use for flight (Pinkoski and Dewey). The fledgling leaves its nest for the first time. However, it does come back to the nest for about 12 more days, because its parents continue feeding it until the fledgling learns how to find its own food (Pinkoski and Dewey).

A juvenile gray catbird outside of its nest

3. 22-23 days old - It leaves its nest and its parents forever, likely not to see them again. By now, its senses have sharpened and it can find its own food (Pinkoski and Dewey). However, it faces many more challenges ahead than just finding food. Many predators hunt for young birds like the gray catbird, and only the fastest and strongest bird will survive (Pinkoski and Dewey). Also, the gray catbird competes with others of its kind for shelter, water and other limited resources. When it is young, a gray catbird is very vulnerable, but its instincts and adaptations help it while encountering these obstacles.

An Eastern bluebird (left) and a young gray catbird (right) competing for food at a bird feeder

4. 3-6 months old (first autumn) - At this age, the gray catbird must migrate for the first time. Flying mostly during the night, it leaves its summer home in the central parts of the U.S. and some of Canada and flies to southern U.S. and Mexico to stay there during its first winter (Pinkoski and Dewey).

A large group of songbirds migrating to the south
A range map showing migration patterns of the gray catbird

5. 7-10 months old (spring) - When spring arrives, the gray catbird travels back to its old home in the north. There, the competition for mates begins. Male gray catbirds show off their best singing and mimicking to attract females and begin breeding (“An Expert Mimic”). Males may also chase after the female, bow and pose in front of it, and raise its tail to show the chestnut patch on the flank (“Gray Catbird” 2017).

A male gray catbird attempting to attract a female by exposing its brightly colored flank

6. 1 year old - The gray catbird usually breeds at an age of 12 months (Pinkoski and Dewey). Once it found a mate, they find an adequate area for their nest and mark their territory. The female builds a nest in shrubs, thickets, or small trees, that is 3-10' above the ground (“Gray Catbird” 2017). The nest looks like a bowl made of twigs, weeds, grass, leaves, and other materials (“Gray Catbird” 2017). Then, the female lays 1-5 eggs in the nest and incubates the eggs for 12-14 days (Pinkoski and Dewey). After the young hatch, both parents protect their offspring as best as they can.

A female gray catbird finding material for its nest

7. Adult life - A gray catbird raises two broods per season (Pinkoski and Dewey). When it is older and more experienced, it faces less obstacles, but many are still present. For example, the gray catbird’s territory could be invaded by the parasitic brown-headed cowbird, that lays eggs in the nests of other birds and whose hatchlings harm the offspring of the host (“Gray Catbird” 2017). However, many gray catbirds are successful in reproducing and caring for their offspring and the oldest reported gray catbird lived for 17 years and 11 months (“Gray Catbird”)!

Gray catbirds competing for food, mates, and shelter with another gray catbird, a pine siskin, and a northern cardinal.

Want to learn more?

A gray catbird with a curious expression that invites you to learn more about it!

Nature fascinates people every day, and the gray catbird is one of nature’s wonders. A bird that sounds like its own predator, it survives through migration and daily competition for food with the help of its adaptations. This gray, unnoticeable, energetic bird fights to live long enough to successfully reproduce multiple times and raise a new generation of gray catbirds. When it flits its tail carelessly and hops from branch to branch, no one could ever imagine how interesting its life is.

if you are acquainted with the song of the birds he so sweetly imitates, you are sure to recognise the manner of the different species.

- James Audubon, ("Plate 128 Cat Bird")

It even possesses a humanity, or rather a generosity and gentleness, worthy of beings more elevated in the scale of nature.

- James Audubon, ("Plate 128 Cat Bird")

Not only is the gray catbird beautifully unique, it also holds exciting records and interesting facts. The plain-looking bird isn't as ordinary as it seems!

An infographic showing fun facts about the gray catbird

Below are field guide pages that I created for the gray catbird. To find out more about the field guide project our team did, visit the fourth link in the next section.

Mini description for trifold reference guide
Full page for field guide

Links and about me

I am a 7th Grade Student at Oak Middle School. This page was created as a part of our project called Bird is the Word. During this project our team partnered with the Mass Audubon Society and Broad Meadow Brook to create educational materials for their fundraising event called the Bird-a-Thon. Each student chose a bird to study. My bird was the gray catbird. Below are some resources that I created along with my classmates. For more information about this project and other birds please visit the links below to four wonderful websites where you can find even more information about the gray catbird and other birds.

Works Cited

“Adaptations.” Project BEAK, 2017, Accessed 11 Apr. 2017.

“An Expert Mimic: The Gray Catbird.” Bird Academy, Cornell University, 2010, Accessed 11 Apr. 2017.

“Gray Catbird.” All About Birds, Cornell University, Accessed 3 Apr. 2017.

“Gray Catbird.” Audubon Bird Guide: North America, e-book, National Audubon Society, 2017. Accessed 3 Apr. 2017.

Pinkoski, Terri, and Tanya Dewey. “Gray catbird.” BioKIDS, U of Michigan, Accessed 3 Apr. 2017.

"Plate 128 Cat Bird." Audubon, National Audubon Society, Accessed 3 Apr. 2017.

Photo Credits

The photos #1-12, #14-18, #21, #23, #27, #30, #31, #33, #34 are credited at the end of the glide show. The photos #13, #19, #20, #22, #24, #25, #28, #29, #32 are cited below. Photos #26 and #35-37 are of my own creation.

Cephas. Dumetella carolinensis QC2.jpg. JPG file, 26 May 2009.

Duncan, Donald A. Dumetella carolinensis, Grey Catbird. JPG file, 28 May 2012.

Hansen, Tommy. Sort sol pdfnet. JPG file, 19 Feb. 2006.

Helm, Gary. Grey Catbird. JPG file.

Jeff the quiet. Gray Catbird nest and egg. JPG file, 28 June 2014.

NCReedplayer. Gray Catbird and Immature Eastern Bluebird. JPG file.

Petroff, Matthew. Gray Ctabird Hatchlings. JPG file.

Reago, Andy, and Chrissy McClarren. Gray Catbird rescue (21045586621). JPG file, 29 Aug. 2015.

Schneider, Kenneth Cole. Gray Catbirds displaying 2-20100516. JPG file.

A gray catbird hops away as the glideshow comes to an end!
Created By
Alina Shkurikhina


Created with images by ibm4381 - "Gray" • Me in ME - "Gray Catbird" • JamesDeMers - "thicket underbrush undergrowth" • molajen - "Holly Berries" • GollyGforce - Living My Worst Nightmare - "gypsy moth - (EC/FCW)" • sanchom - "Ant" • Nick Goodrum Photography - "Bloody nosed beetle - Timarcha tenebricosa" • Huskyherz - "grasshopper insect nature" • Anemone123 - "elder elderberries sambucus nigra" • Fyn Kynd - "Gray Catbird" • Fyn Kynd - "Juvenile Gray Catbird" • ibm4381 - "Gray Catbird" • Kinchan1 - "Gray Catbird & Breakfast" • ibm4381 - "Gray Catbird" • audreyjm529 - "Mother And Child" • ibm4381 - "Sittin' in the Catbird Seat" • AcrylicArtist - "Gray Catbird" • CheepShot - "Gray Catbird" • ibm4381 - "Gray" • ibm4381 - "Gray Catbird" • melissaleighpeck - "Red-winged Blackbird, Gray Catbird" • melissaleighpeck - "Northern Cardinal, Gray Catbird" • ibm4381 - "Another catbird" • CheepShot - "Gray Catbird" • Wildreturn - "Gray Catbird - see the red panties?"

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