Master Mimic

Gray Catbird

If you suddenly hear a Goldfinch, Eastern Bluebird, North American Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse and maybe a Bullfrog all singing in quick succession from the top of one tree, it may not be an inter-species folk festival…

It may not even be the justly famed Northern Mockingbird…

In my own neighborhood, it’s more likely to be an equally gifted but often unseen customer…

Meet Kit the Gray Catbird

Like his mimic cousins the Brown Thrasher and various Mockingbirds, the Gray Catbird can imitate at least several and perhaps dozens of sounds, including electronic clicks from car keys and yes, I recently heard a Gray Catbird croaking like a frog.

Beware the fallacy that Catbirds are lesser mimics!

Catbirds, in my experience, have vocabularies every bit as impressive as other members of the  songbird mimic family mimidae. They do, however, suffer bad press, sometimes unjustly dismissed as having lesser gifts.

I call cow patties to this cant. It’s us human listeners who may be wanting.

Here’s why. Mockingbirds make it easier for folks trying to identify distinct birdsongs—because they typically repeat a mimicked bird call two or three times before moving on to the next.

Catbirds, however, typically rattle off their repertory without repeating any calls. This means a Catbird symphony may last half as long as a Mockingbird sonata while actually containing significantly more different bird calls. Personally, I find  this also makes a Catbird call tougher to deconstruct —so I can’t be sure I’m giving him credit for all the different songbirds he may be imitating.

Plus, of course, Catbird song-strings often include the bird’s distinctive meow, plus a non-mimicked check-check-check that’s unique to the Gray Catbird species. Name me a Mockingbird who can do that!

Moreover, some experts contend that female Catbirds favor males who can imitate the most different bird calls…

And, if true, the greatest Catbird maestros might be likeliest to reproduce! This hypothesis needs more proof, but if true, it might go a long way in guaranteeing the supremacy of Catbird mimicry.

Finally, Catbirds are notoriously tough to spot…

They avoid open meadows and stick to tangled underbrush. So the next time you hear an astonishing mimic that you can’t see, don’t assume it’s a Mockingbird.

It may very well be the champion of quick-singing mimics, our friend Kit the Gray Catbird.

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