Meow mix-up

gray catbird

Once it begins to sing, any mystery about the source of the catbird's name is solved (Photo: by Jerry Oldenettel, Creative Commons license)


The semester is winding down, so I can’t say I was all that surprised to hear a soft, kittenish mewing coming from the small wedge of remnant wooded habitat between my apartment parking lot and the highway. I’ve mentioned before that I live in a complex near campus and, sadly, it’s common for a new crop of outdoor cats to appear as the students disappear. This is not unique to Virginia Tech—it happens in college communities all across the country. People often hold the misperception that cats are more independent and able to live on their own than dogs… that may have something to do with it.

But as I scanned the underbrush looking for the source, thinking of what I might use to coax a frightened feline to come out, come out, wherever it was, I came to the happy realization that I wouldn’t be making a trip to the animal shelter after all. It’s been a long time since I heard a gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis), and never was I more thrilled by a tune in the trees than last Sunday morning.

Their call may be the world’s easiest to recognize. Once you’ve heard that “meow,” you won’t wonder another minute how the catbird caught its moniker. Like their relatives, the  mockingbirds and thrashers, these birds are able to copy other sounds and string them together to create a clever mash-up. But their signature song isn’t a case of mimicry—its all their own, shared by every member of the species.

Now that my ears have been retuned, I’ve been hearing catbirds calling all over town. That’s one more reason to be happy this spring, because this species, which is pretty common in most of its range, has been in decline recently in the southeastern U.S. You’d never know it here in Blacksburg, though, where it sounds like litters of catbirds have been turned loose in the woods.

If not for that distinctive call, you might not even notice these secretive birds. They don’t like to cross open areas, so they stick to the thickets, moving in quick hops and short flights through dense vegetation as they search for insects and berries. At first glance, a catbird’s plumage is unremarkable. But look again and you’ll see that slate gray gives way to a jaunty black cap and tail. Look even more closely and you’ll see a rich rusty-orange patch just beneath the tail. That bright flash of pigment always takes me by surprise and makes me laugh—it’s like catching a glimpse of a colorful thong or pair of boxers peeking out of a staid gray flannel suit!


An example of the gray catbird’s diverse playlist — the first “meow” call is at about the 13 second mark.


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