Map: Gray catbird range


This very distinctive mimid generally remains hidden in the understory of dense thickets in eastern woodlands and residential areas. It often cocks its longish, black tail, and it is usually detected by its harsh, downslurred mew call, reminiscent of a cat’s meow. A chunky, medium-size bird, it is larger than Catharus thrushes yet smaller than other thrashers. No other North American bird has a uniform dark gray plumage. Monotypic. Length 8.5" (22 cm).

Identification Sexes similar. Body entirely dark gray, with black cap, black tail, and chestnut undertail coverts.

Similar Species Plumage unique. Its mimicking song resembles songs of other thrashers or the American dipper, with which it overlaps in the western portion of its range. Mew calls can be confused with calls of the hermit thrush or the spotted and green-tailed towhees.

Voice Call: a nasal, catlike, down­slurred mew. Also a quirt note and a rapid chatter alarm when startled. Song: a variable mixture of melodious, nasal, and squeaky notes, interspersed with catlike mew notes. Some individuals are excellent mimics. Normally sings and calls from inside dense thickets.

Status and Distribution Common, but secretive. Breeding: nests in dense thickets along edge of mixed woodland. In the West, nests along willow- and alder-lined montane streams. Migration: nocturnal migrant. Trans-Gulf and Caribbean migrant. Sometimes abundant during migratory fallouts along the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana and in southern Florida. Spring peak in Texas mid-April–early May. Winter: mainly southeastern United States, Mexico, northern Central America, and Caribbean islands. Vagrant: casual during fall and winter in the Southwest and along Pacific coast.

Population Western birds limited by loss of riparian habitats.

—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006

Bird Features

  • Illustration of great horned owl

    What's That Bird?

    Identify your backyard visitors in a flash! Just answer four simple questions to search our database of 150 backyard birds common to Canada and the U.S.

  • Picture of a hummingbird

    Backyard Birds Quiz

    How much do you know about the feathered visitors to your backyard? Put your avian IQ to the test with this quiz.

See More Bird Features »

National Geographic Magazine

  • Photo: bowerbird mating game between female and male bowerbirds.

    Bowerbirds Gallery

    To woo a "Mary," bowerbirds decorate with shells, cans, even pink paper clips.

  • Photo: Female whooping crane feeding her young

    Counting Cranes

    How many whooping cranes are there? Not enough. See photos of these birds in action.