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Nature

Good Natured in St. Charles: Mimicry of catbird extends beyond feline name

What’s black and gray and red, and heard all over? The gray catbird. Listen for the lively songs of these talented mimics amid thickets and fruit-bearing shrubs.
What’s black and gray and red, and heard all over? The gray catbird. Listen for the lively songs of these talented mimics amid thickets and fruit-bearing shrubs.

“Mew.”

The sound was soft and, at first, easy to overlook. But the longer I spent along the tree line, listening as I walked, the more insistent the caller became.

“Mew … Meew … Meeeww!”

I was supposed to be collecting a supply of creek water for our resident turtle leech Loren (as described in the Sept. 27, 2018 installment of Good Natured), but the weather was so perfect, I was having trouble staying on task.

As the sun dappled the leaves and ground around me, distractions just kept coming along – a red admiral butterfly smack in the middle of the path (tried to take a picture, but no luck); great gobs of spittlebug spittle, glistening in the sun (had to poke into one, to see if I could find the little larva hidden inside); an American toad crawling through the sedges (can’t not stop to appreciate a toad, warts and all).

And then there was that incessant mewing. Clearly, I’d upset someone’s day. And thanks to that cat-like call, it wasn’t hard to know who it was: Dumetella carolinensis, the gray catbird.

Boy, talk about a perfect name. The medium-sized member of the Mimidae, or mimic family (the same as mockingbirds and thrashers), is predominantly slate gray, with a black cap and a dark gray tail. It’s not entirely monochromatic, though. Down below, the patch of feathers known as the undertail coverts are a rusty red color. You can see these pictured in field guides and, if you’re lucky, in the field. Catbirds, however, are more likely to be heard than seen.

Any hardcore Latin buffs out there may recognize the root word dumus, or thorny thicket, hidden in the genus name. Add on a diminutive suffix and you end up with a name that means, roughly, “small thornbush dweller,” another apt descriptor. Catbirds typically are found in the woodland understory, calling from the branches of shrubs and small trees, whether thorny or not.

But what both the common and Latin names leave out is any mention of the catbird’s phenomenal ability to, well, jabber.

Are you familiar with scat? (And, no, even though this is a nature column, we’re not talking about that kind of scat. Not this time, anyway.) What I’m referring to is the style of jazz where the singer just keeps going, incorporating familiar words or phrases along with long strings of syllables that imitate the sounds of musical instruments.

Ella Fitzgerald was a great scat artist, as was Cab Calloway. And so is the catbird.

Their “mew” sounds, or warning calls aside, catbirds are accomplished vocalists capable of producing some of the longest songs in our woods. Their compositions are a combination of original notes and, true to their mimic roots, bits and pieces borrowed from other birds. One song can include tweets and peeps, toots and howls, along with parts of songs from robins, orioles or other songbirds, even the calls of frogs or the drone of machinery.

What really distinguishes the catbird’s song is its length. Like some naturalists I know, the catbird can go on and on. And on. Songs can last up to 10 minutes – a huge chunk of time when you consider that life in the woods must also include other necessary tasks such as foraging for food and hiding from predators.

If you should find yourself near a woodland or “thorny thicket” and happen to hear a bird singing, stop and give a listen. Not sure who it is? Be a bad audience member and clear your throat. Rustle around a little, or clap prematurely. If your actions cause the singing to stop, and if you’re scolded with a petulant, whining “Mew,” you’ll know you’ve found yourself a catbird, an avian songster whose bold performances are – say it with me – the cat’s meow.

Pam Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or potto@stcparks.org. Feedback on this column can be sent to editorial@kcchronicle.com.

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