Gray Catbird

May has begun with warm, sunny days that feel like almost like summer, a gentle, storybook version of summer. Clear blue skies and high white clouds and warmth that soaks in and feels good. Daisies and dandelions and other yellow wildflowers bloom, and a butterfly floats by now and then. Most of our winter birds have left and the rush of spring migration is coming to an end, with the last few birds arriving for the summer.

Today the new arrival was a Gray Catbird, one of my favorites. I’ve been watching for the Catbirds to return for the past week or more, and today I finally saw one. It was in the same area where I’ve found them the past few summers, sitting in the very top of a large Leyland Cypress tree, against a deep-blue, cloudless sky, and singing.

A Gray Catbird is a dapper-looking bird, slate-gray all over, with a neat black cap, and rusty-orange feathers under the tail – which I couldn’t see today. It’s shaped like a Mockingbird, slender, with a long tail. Related to Northern Mockingbirds and Brown Thrashers, it sings a song that also includes mimicked sounds – though it’s not at all as fluent as a Mockingbird. A Gray Catbird’s song is a long series of notes, and many of them might be described as nasal or creaky – or they might be described as individual and different, more artistic and inventive. Going his own way. A Gray Catbird has character. It has a sense of style.

Some Gray Catbirds might spend winters here, but most seem to move at least a little further south for the winter, closer to the coast, then return here for the breeding season. They generally live in dense, tangled shrubs and thickets, so I’m not sure why they like this particular area, in a very suburban environment with well-kept yards and shrubs – though there are a lot of large trees, including evergreens. 

When I first saw it today, the Gray Catbird was just emerging from the thick green foliage of the Leyland cypress and making its way to the top of the tree. At the same time, a Northern Mockingbird sat on the peak of the roof of a house in the same yard, singing exuberantly. When the Catbird reached the top of the cypress tree, it sat for a few moments, and I wondered if it would sing.  The Mockingbird’s song was so loud and so flamboyant, it seemed that any other song didn’t have a chance of being heard above it. But finally the Catbird began to sing, too, first one note, then another, and another, and it kept going. Not musical, but distinctive. One note was like the Catbird’s raspy, mewing call, others were whistles and gurgling notes, one note at a time, not repeated. It kept singing, growing more confident, apparently undaunted by the competition. And in the end, it was the Mockingbird that stopped singing first – and flew away.

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