The Gray Catbird is an inhabitant of dense shrubs and vine tangles with a wide breeding range in the United States and Canada. The common name is derived from its color and a vocalization that resembles that of a domestic cat. Its preferred nest site restricts the species in arid parts of the western United States to more moist areas.
DISTRIBUTION. During the 1987-1992 field work for the TBBA project, observers found almost all probable and confirmed breeding records (about 30% of all reports) scattered across northeast Texas. About 87% of reports from all 3 categories were found north of the 29th parallel and east of the 98th meridian. Using the named natural areas of Lockwood and Freeman (2004), breeding was most often found in the Pineywoods with more scattered sites in the Post Oak Savannah and Blackland Prairies. Since Gray Catbird nests are not easy to locate in the thick vegetation where they are placed, many of the possible records in northeast Texas may also represent actual breeding. At least some of the possible records may also represent late migrants.
In winter most Gray Catbirds are found along the Gulf Coast plain from the Louisiana border to the Rio Grande delta. The species is most common in Texas during migration, especially in the eastern half of the state (Oberholser 1974, Cimprich and Moore 1995, Lockwood and Freeman 2004).
Outside Texas, Gray Catbirds breed across Canada from southern British Columbia to New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, and south through the United States from eastern Washington, northeastern Oregon and Utah, Colorado, northeast Arizona, northwest New Mexico, eastern Oklahoma and east to the Atlantic Coast, excluding the Gulf Coastal plain and Florida. Most Gray Catbirds winter along the Atlantic Coast from southeast Massachusetts to Florida and along the Gulf Coast from Florida to northwest Colombia, plus the Bahamas, Cuba and the Caymans (Cimprich and Moore 1995).
SEASONAL OCCURRENCE. Migrant Gray Catbirds arrive in Texas from March 20 to May 31, with peak movement from mid-April through May. The species breeds from mid-April to mid-August; eggs have been taken from May 5 to July 28. Gray Catbirds move south from August 7 to December 3, with a peak from early September through October. (Oberholser 1974, Lockwood and Freeman 2004).
BREEDING HABITAT. Gray Catbirds breed at elevations between 90 and 1100 m (300 to 3700 ft) in Texas in thickets and undergrowth near woodland edges and swamps, and in vine and brier tangles.
The nest, built by both sexes in 5-6 days, is placed in bushes or small trees, 1-3 m (3-10 ft) above ground. It is a rough, bulky, loosely built bowl, composed of twigs, rootlets, grasses, plant stalks, strips of bark and human detritus and neatly lined with fine rootlets.
The female usually lays 4 (range 3-6) deep bluish green, unmarked eggs (color deeper than eggs of American Robin [Turdus migratorius] or Wood Thrush [Hylocichla mustelina]). The female incubates the eggs for 12-13 days and the nestlings fledge about 10.5 (range 8-12 or even 15) days of age. Gray Catbirds are rarely successfully parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) since the potential host usually rejects the cowbird eggs. Rarely a confused catbird ejects its own eggs and retains the cowbird eggs (Oberholser 1974, Harrison 1979, Cimprich and Moore 1995).
STATUS. Lockwood and Freeman (2004) report Gray Catbird as a common to uncommon migrant through the eastern half of Texas, becoming increasingly rare to the west. In winter the species is uncommon to rare along the coast and in the lower Rio Grande valley. Gray Catbirds are rare and irregular inland in winter. The map and statements about breeding range in Lockwood and Freeman (2004) are consistent with Oberholser (1974), but not with the TBBA map or with data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) included below.
No breeding evidence was found by TBBA atlasers in areas like the northern Panhandle and upper Red River valley where breeding and summer records are found on Oberholser’s (1974) map, This suggests the breeding range of the Gray Catbird may have contracted eastward in Texas in the last century.
The BBS participants only encountered Gray Catbirds on eight 40 km (25 mi) routes in Texas, finding an average of <1 catbird per route in the Pineywoods along the Louisiana border. The BBS data was insufficient to provide a useful population trend estimate for this species in Texas. Data from the 2220 BBS routes on which the species was reported in the United States and Canada provide a 95% confidence interval of -0.4 to 0.2% population change per year for the period 1966-2003 (there is a 95% probability that the actual yearly change will be between these limits). These data suggest a relatively small population change has occurred over the species extensive range.
Population changes are often most noticeable in areas at the edge of a species’ range where populations are not dense. Thus the decrease in range and population density between the map of historic data and estimates of abundance (Oberholser (1974)), compared to the TBBA map and BBS data on abundance (Sauer et al. 2004), probably represent changes in local habitat and climatic conditions in Texas.
The precarious position of Gray Catbird as a breeder in Texas is unfortunate for birdwatchers in the state. Even though Gray Catbirds are still present widely in migration and along the coast in winter, breeding season is often the time when this species is most visible as the male defends its territory.
Text by Robert C. Tweit (2005)
Cimprich, D. A, and F R. Moore 1995. Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) In The birds of North America, No. 167 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
Harrison, H. H. 1979. A field guide to western birds’ nests. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA.
Lockwood, M. W. and B. Freeman. 2004. The TOS handbook of Texas birds. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.
Oberholser, H. C. 1974. The bird life of Texas. University of Texas Press, Austin.
Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, and J. Fallon. 2004. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analysis 1966-2003. Version 2004.1. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel MD (Web site, http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs).