Illustration: Gray catbird

Illustration by H. Douglas Pratt

Map

Map: Gray catbird range

Audio

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

  • Photo: A red bird with black wings on a branch

    Backyard Birding Central

    Want to learn more about our feathered friends of the sky? Visit our Backyard Birding site for facts, photos, videos, and more.

  • Illustration: 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.

See More Bird Features »

Bird News

See More Animal News »

Birds A-Z

Photos

  •  Picture of a Malayan tiger

    Pictures: Tiger Subspecies

    Scientists estimate only about 3,000 wild tigers are left in the entire world. Meet the subspecies and see what threats each is facing.

See more animal photos »

National Geographic Magazine

From the Magazine

  1. Photo of the lions of the Vumbi pride.

    The Surprising Lives of Lions

    In case you missed it: See these breathtaking videos and photos from inside a wild Serengeti pride.

  2. Photo: Two adult preen, Ireland

    Gannets Pictures

    Champion divers but clumsy landers, doting parents but hostile neighbors—northern gannets abound in contradictions.