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Gray Catbird

Dumetella carolinensis ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: MIMIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

If you’re convinced you’ll never be able to learn bird calls, start with the Gray Catbird. Once you’ve heard its catty mew you won’t forget it. Follow the sound into thickets and vine tangles and you’ll be rewarded by a somber gray bird with a black cap and bright rusty feathers under the tail. Gray Catbirds are relatives of mockingbirds and thrashers, and they share that group’s vocal abilities, copying the sounds of other species and stringing them together to make their own song.

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Keys to identification Help

Thrushlike
Thrushlike
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    A medium-sized, slender songbird with a long, rounded, black tail and a narrow, straight bill. Catbirds are fairly long legged and have broad, rounded wings.

  • Color Pattern

    Catbirds give the impression of being entirely slaty gray. With a closer look you’ll see a small black cap, blackish tail, and a rich rufous-brown patch under the tail.

  • Behavior

    Catbirds are secretive but energetic, hopping and fluttering from branch to branch through tangles of vegetation. Singing males sit atop shrubs and small trees. Catbirds are reluctant to fly across open areas, preferring quick, low flights over vegetation.

  • Habitat

    Look for Gray Catbirds in dense tangles of shrubs, small trees, and vines, along forest edges, streamside thickets, old fields, and fencerows.

Range Map Help

Gray Catbird Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Gray Catbird

    Adult
    • Gray body, wings, and tail
    • Dark cap
    • Long dark tail
    • Reddish undertail coverts
    • © Michael Hogan, New Jersey, May 2006
  • Adult

    Gray Catbird

    Adult
    • Gray body, wings, and tail
    • Dark cap
    • Reddish undertail coverts
    • Dark eye and bill
    • © robinsegg, Wyoming, June 2005
  • Adult

    Gray Catbird

    Adult
    • Often frugivorous
    • Long dark tail
    • Dark cap
    • Gray body, wings, and tail
    • Dark eye and bill
    • © Tom Smith, Sandy Hook, New Jersey, May 2008
  • Adult

    Gray Catbird

    Adult
    • Gray body, wings, and tail
    • Dark cap
    • © Larry Meade, Springfield, Virginia, July 2008
  • Adult

    Gray Catbird

    Adult
    • Long, dark tail
    • © Robert Elliot, Punta Gorda, Florida, February 2007
  • Adult

    Gray Catbird

    Adult
    • Often cocks tail up when perched
    • © J Young, February 2007

Similar Species

  • Adult

    Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

    Adult
    • Tiny: less than half the size of a catbird
    • White on outside of tail
    • Whitish belly and white eyering
    • No black cap
    • © Byard Miller , Hinsdale, New Hampshire, May 2008
  • Adult female

    Brown-headed Cowbird

    Adult female
    • Darker and browner than a catbird
    • Short and thick bill
    • More stocky than streamlined in shape
    • © tsiya, April 2008
  • Adult

    Northern Mockingbird

    Adult
    • White belly; paler gray overall
    • White in wings and tail
    • No black cap or rusty patch under tail
    • © JoanGeeAZ, Tucson, Arizona, October 2008
  • Adult female

    Phainopepla

    Adult female
    • Only found in the Southwest
    • Long gray crest, erect posture
    • No black cap or rusty patch under the tail
    • White wingbars
    • © Desert Vu , Clark Co., Nevada, January 2009
  • Adult

    Townsend's Solitaire

    Adult
    • Tendency to sit upright on high, exposed perches
    • Obvious white eyering and all-gray head
    • Buffy wing patch
    • No black cap or rufous patch under tail
    • © Gerry Dewaghe, December 2008

Similar Species

The Gray Catbird lacks white on its wings and tail and is smaller and darker gray than the Northern Mockingbird. The Townsend's Solitaire of the West is more gray-brown, with a pale eyering and no black cap or rufous under the tail. It acts very differently from a catbird, sitting on high, exposed perches. Catbirds are much grayer, with a black cap, long tail, and thinner bill than either female Brown-headed Cowbirds or female Brewer's Blackbirds. Female Phainopeplas, of the Southwest, are similarly shaped but have a crest, a red eye, and white edges to the wing feathers. Phainopeplas tend to sit very straight up, whereas catbirds crouch over.

Backyard Tips

To attract Gray Catbirds, plant shrubs in areas of your yard near young deciduous trees. Catbirds also love fruit, so you can entice them with plantings of native fruit-bearing trees and shrubs such as dogwood, winterberry, and serviceberry.

Find This Bird

Listen for the distinctive mew call of the Gray Catbird, or for its imitation of several species during a long, seemingly improvised series of notes. When the male is singing, look for him at the top of a dense, tangled thicket. Gray Catbirds will also often come to investigate if you make a "pishing" sound when they are in the area.

Get Involved

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Whose Nest Is it?

Gray Catbird: Sitting in the catbird seat (Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center)