Those of you who have followed my wildlife weeklies over the years have undoubtedly picked up on the fact that I enjoy the songs and calls of wild birds. Listening to and identifying birds by ear is an unending pleasure. Aside from just plain enjoyable, learning the vocalizations of our feathered friends enhances our relationships with these fascinating creatures.
Springtime is the best time for tuning in to the calls and songs of birds. Males of most species, especially songbirds, are singing their hearts out as they establish their breeding territories for locating and attracting mates. The prairie grasslands, forests, and wetlands are teeming with the sounds of avian music everywhere.
But did you know that we have a mimic in our midst? I’m sure many of you do as you look forward to its return to the northland as much as yours truly does. Indeed, that master of mimicry is none other than the gray catbird.
As I write these words, I’m listening through my open home-office window to the namesake call of this elegant species — their soft cat-like mew. So unmistakable a call, the mewl-call of the gray catbird is the most common of the bird’s vocalizations, and the one that most people are familiar with.
Yet there’s so much more to the catbird’s repertoire that’s worth noting and listening for each spring. Like most other male birds this time of year, male catbirds are busy staking out breeding territories in which a whole lot of singing’s going on. And if you listen closely, you’ll hear songs and calls — or snippets of other songs and calls — that sound a lot like other birds and animals, and sometimes even objects.
Last Saturday as I sat on my deck enjoying the final hour of daylight on another beautiful spring evening, birds singing and visiting my backyard feeding station, I became acutely aware of a singing male catbird nearby. Not difficult to pick out because of the species’ interesting and distinct phrase-like lengthy warbled delivery, the catbird’s song is unlike that of any other bird. And yet, paradoxically, the catbird’s song is like other birds, but only if you listen very closely.
What surprised me the most and immediately caught my attention about this particular male catbird, is that he was, ahem, barking! I couldn’t believe my ears. This special male catbird was mimicking to perfection the sound of, albeit annoying, the incessant and non-stop yapping of a neurotic lapdog.
For the better part of a half-minute, maybe longer, over and over, the catbird barked his lapdog bark-call, before at last breaking into more typical catbird-like sing-song phrases, warbles, whistles, chats, and other masterful mimicry.
I felt extremely fortunate to be in the presence of one very experienced male catbird that had survived many breeding seasons and many cross-country migrations. It’s entirely possible that this particular catbird wintered in the Caribbean or Central America.
As I listened to the catbird’s long and diverse song, I was able to pick out a few other parts of other birdsongs and calls. I heard him imitate a red-wing blackbird, veery, American robin, crow, and what I also believed was the “che-bek” call of a least flycatcher. What a joy! I’m positive there were other impressions, but I’ll need to listen more carefully the next time I hear him sing.
Gray catbirds are among the many avian wonders we’re lucky to have around this time of year and throughout our Minnesota summers. A member of the family Mimidae, which includes brown thrashers and northern mockingbirds, look for catbirds in deciduous woodlands and thickets, especially in places where dense shrubs grow adjacent to fields, forest openings, and yards and homesteads.
The gray catbird’s genus name “Dumetella,” meaning “thicket,” is precisely where you’ll normally find this special species of bird. And though you’ll likely never observe its close relative the mockingbird this far north, you can consider the gray catbird Minnesota’s mockingbird, as it sings and imitates other birds and animals — dogs, too — as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.