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Gray Catbird
Dumetella carolinensis
– Family
Authors: Cimprich, David A., and Frank R. Moore
Revisors: Smith, Robert J., and Margret I. Hatch

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Gray Catbird, Winter Park, FL, 29 March.
Figure 1. Distribution of the Gray Catbird.

The Gray Catbird was named for its mewing call, although few people would mistake the sound of this bird for that of an actual cat. Like other species in the family Mimidae, this bird displays considerable vocal versatility. Part of this ability stems from the structure of its syrinx. Because both sides of this vocal organ are able to operate independently, the Gray Catbird can sing with two voices at the same time.

The song of this species is a long series of short syllables delivered in rapid sequence. Its repertoire may include syllables of more than 100 different types varying from whistles to harsh chatters, squeaks, and even mimicry. These are sung in seemingly random order at an uneven tempo, resulting in what often sounds like an improvised babble of notes occasionally spiced with the familiar mew.

The genus name, Dumetella, meaning “small thicket,” accurately reflects the Gray Catbird’s habitat: dense, shrubby vegetation. In this setting, it builds a bulky, open nest, usually within two meters of the ground. Although Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) parasitize the Gray Catbird, they rarely are successful. This catbird is one of only about a dozen species known to recognize cowbird eggs and eject them from its nest—an ability that is learned, not innate. On both breeding and wintering grounds this catbird eats much fruit, sometimes becoming a pest for farmers and gardeners.

This is a bird with a broad wintering range, from the southern New England coast south to Panama, with concentrations on the US Gulf coast and the Yucatan Peninsula. Yucatan winterers, and those to the south, are trans-Gulf migrants, with individuals tending to lay on significant stores of fat to complete that crossing.