Contributed by Alfred Otto Gross
[Published in 1948: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 195: 320-351]
The catbird is a stable species; throughout its extensive nesting range from British Columbia to Quebec and south to the Gulf States and the Bermuda Islands not a single subspecies has been recognized. Outram Bangs and Thomas S. Bradlee (1901) described the smaller Bermuda birds, which have narrow and shorter tail feathers and primaries as bermudianus, but this species was never accepted by the A. O. U. committee on nomenclature.
It is almost universally known as the catbird, but in the south this recognized singer and mimic is sometimes locally called the black mockingbird, and in Bermuda where there are no resident Icteridae the natives have named it the blackbird. The name catbird, though a misnomer, is destined to remain. It probably originated from some casual listener who gave ear only to the short, grating, catlike call and did not hear or was not impressed by its pleasing and varied song. As a boy the name prejudiced me against this bird until I learned to know its true worth and the high place among our native birds it now holds in my estimation.
Though modestly colored the catbird is exquisitely tailored and always presents a trim appearance. He is intelligent and friendly and possesses a lively and restless temperament, ever ready to be helpful to others of its kind in trouble of any sort, often coming to the aid of distracted parents in the defense of their homes and little ones. He is very playful, full of droll pranks and quaint performances. He is also an accomplished singer as well as a mimic and possesses many other admirable qualities that endear him to the bird lover who has learned to know his interesting personality.
Spring.--In Florida the catbird is an abundant migrant, but it is also a fairly common winter resident and a few breed in the central and northern parts of the state. According to A. H. Howell (1932), the spring migration begins very early, as indicated by the record of 25 catbirds seen flying north at Sombrero Key on the night of January 26. Two others were seen there on January 28. However, the majority of the migrants pass through the state about the middle of April, with belated stragglers migrating as late as the first two weeks of May. In Alabama the catbirds appear as migrants at various parts of the state from April 6 to April 19. Likewise in Louisiana and Texas the mass of catbird migrants passes through during the first weeks of April. They reach Pennsylvania and Ohio about April 27. At Cape May, N. J., the average date of 18 years of first arrival records made by Witmer Stone (1937) is April 25. The average date of first arrivals at Minneapolis, Minn. (T. S. Roberts, 1932), is May 5, the earliest April 27, 1921. In New York, New England, and southern Canada the catbirds may be expected the first week of May.
In general the great bulk of migrants arrive about a week after the first birds of the season are seen. The migratory wave of catbirds requires about a month in traveling from the southern part of the United States to the northern and western section of their nesting range.
The spring migration northward is regular, and the date of arrival varies but little from year to year. Even during times of unseasonably cold weather the catbird does not seem to halt its movements to await for warmer days but usually proceeds on schedule.
The catbird travels chiefly at night and is so quiet that its great flights are seldom detected, but on arrival at their breeding grounds their presence is announced by their delightful songs. Each spring during the first week of May I am awakened by the first catbird song from a friendly individual who sings from his perch in the catalpa tree just outside my window. He seems eager to let us and everyone else in the neighborhood know that he is here for the season. He also informs his neighbors that the syringa bushes, lilacs, and arborvitae about the catalpa tree are his territory and that he is ready to challenge any intruder.
Courtship.--After a few days the female arrives and an animated courtship begins. This is carried on largely in the seclusion of the dense shrubbery and evergreens which cover much of the backyard. Often they may be seen dashing in and out of the thick cover, the male in hot pursuit of his elusive mate. Frequently he pauses for an outpouring of song, with his plumage raised and tail lowered he bows with his bill toward his perch. He slides about in a curious manner, or struts in a fantastic fashion with his wings lowered and tail erected, and sometimes he wheels about displaying the only bit of color he possesses: the contrasting chestnut patch on his under tail coverts. After a few days of arduous courtship nest-building begins, with the song period of the male reaching its climax. He sings almost continuously during the early morning and evening hours and sometimes well into the night. As he sings he seems to be well aware that he is an accomplished and versatile vocalist. He gives a distinct impression of a bird that likes to show off; he wishes to be heard and seen by everyone. His self-consciousness and vanity at such times are most amusing. Not only does the male sing vigorously but also he is ever on the alert to protect his territory against all intruders whether it be the gray squirrel that comes to the feeding shelf nearby or the Baltimore oriole that builds its nest on a pendent limb of the tall elm bordering the street.
Nesting.--The catbird usually chooses low dense thickets, tangles of vines, or small bushy trees for its nesting site. Often it is in vegetation bordering marshes, streams, or forests. In all cases the nest is well concealed by foliage. It is an adaptable species and may seek the habitations of man to build in hedgerows or cultivated shrubs of the gardens. At Brunswick, Maine, there is a pair that builds each year in a mass of shrubbery within a few yards of the house where the frequent presence of members of the household fails to disturb their normal activities. The catbird is characteristic of the country home, and I have vivid memories of a pair that regularly built in the blackberry briers that bordered our vegetable garden of a central-Illinois farm. The old apple orchard was also a favorite nesting place of a pair of them. Witmer Stone (1913a) writes as follows: "Every old garden has somewhere about it a shady thicket of lilacs, mock-orange, or some similar shrubbery in a niche by the back porch, perhaps, or behind the greenhouse, or over in the corner where the fences come together; and it is with such a spot that the Catbird is most closely associated in my mind."
All the nests I have examined have been placed relatively low, ranging from 2 to 6 feet above ground. A. D. DuBois has sent us details of 16 nests that he found located in osage-orange hedges, willows, a small elm, thorn trees, elderberry, and various bushes and shrubs. These nests ranged from 3 to 10 feet above ground.
In Maine the catbird sometimes resorts to coniferous trees, and I have found the nests in low thick spruce and fir trees. R. T. Morris (1923) reports a pair of catbirds that built in a pine tree on his place at Stamford, Conn. The nest was at an elevation of 20 feet above ground. Two broods were reared, but he could not be sure the same nest was used for the second brood, as the branches were too thick to allow climbing for investigation. Catbirds are not adverse to wet situations, and some of them have been found nesting in cattail marshes and inland swamps. C. H. Stockard (1905) states that in the east-central portion of Mississippi he has found nests of the catbird in bushes bordering lakes in which the nests were suspended over the water.
As might be expected, individual catbirds may depart from the usual nesting sites. M. B. Trautman (1940) studied 35 catbird nests in the region of Buckeye Lake, Ohio, of which two were built on the ground in spite of the fact other more favorable places were available. At the other extreme Pearson and the Brimleys (1919) reported a nest located 50 to 60 feet above the level of the ground. W. N. Colton (1889) reports finding a catbird's nest in a natural cavity of a dead apple tree. The birds had filled up a cavity almost 9 inches deep with nesting materials. These nesting sites represent unusual conditions, and we should not allow them to confuse our conception of the usual nesting site of the catbird.
The nest has a substantial and bulky foundation of coarse sticks, weed stems, grasses, leaves, and twigs. It is rather rough and straggly-appearing outwardly but neatly lined with skeleton leaves, pine needles, fine shreds of bark, and more often with dark fibrous rootlets. In the Midwest, nests are sometimes provided with a horsehair lining. Some of the nests, especially those built near the habitations of man, have in addition to the usual materials bits of paper, cotton, tow, strings, and rags. W. L. McAtee (1940a), who analyzed the materials used in the construction of 12 catbird nests, reports as follows:
"Twelve nests were made of the following materials, the frequency of use of which is indicated by the numbers in parentheses. Foundation: coarse weed stalks (11), leaves (7), paper (7), coarse twigs (5), red-cedar bark (4), grass (3), chestnut bark (1), and lumps of dirt (1). Lining: in each case (12) made exclusively of rootlets."
Both birds share in the work of carrying sticks to the nest, but the female does the major part of the construction and the shaping of the structure. If the male finds the female at the nest when he brings nesting material, he hands it over to the female for her to manipulate into the nest. On the other hand, if the male is at the nest when the female arrives, he immediately gives her right-of-way. The male accompanies the female on many of her journeys for nesting material, but a considerable portion of his time is taken up by singing and defending his territory.
About 5 or 6 days are required to complete the nest, and in one case under observation the first egg was laid during the morning of the day after the nest was finished. One egg was added each morning thereafter until a set of four was complete. During the first few days the female did not incubate continuously but was away from the nest at irregular intervals of time. Thereafter she seldom left her eggs and was fed on the nest by the male.
On coming to the nest and settling down on the eggs she shifted her body from side to side, working the feathers of the breast and belly around the eggs and permitting them to come in direct contact with naked aptera to receive the heat from her body needed for incubation. The nest is usually so deeply cupped that her long tail is thrust upward at an angle nearly perpendicular to the axis of her body, and likewise the head is generally thrown back.
Eggs.--The number of eggs per set varies from two to five. R. C. Harlow (1918), who examined 110 nests of the catbird in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, determined the average to be 4 with a variation of from 3 to 5. Exceptional sets of 6 eggs have been reported by various observers. M. B. Trautman (1940) found a nest at Buckeye Lake, Ohio, on June 24, 1927, that contained 6 eggs. Nests with only 1 or 2 well-incubated eggs have been reported.
The eggs are a deep glossy greenish blue or bluish green, much deeper in tone than those of the robin or wood thrush. They are almost always without markings, but there are a few rare exceptions. John Nichols has seen the eggs spotted with red. Sage, Bishop, and Bliss (1913) and E. D. Wintle (1883) also reported catbirds as laying spotted eggs.
The measurements of 50 eggs in the United States National Museum average 23.3 by 17.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 26.4 by 17.8, 24.1 by 18.8, 21.3 by 17.8, and 21.8 by 15.8 millimeters.
The male took no share in incubating, nor did he ever, I think, make any attempt to brood the young. If he came to the nest and found the female absent, during incubation, he would fidget on a nearby twig in a helpless, worried fashion, but apparently never thought of taking her place. . . . During incubation, the male sang very infrequently within my hearing, and brought food to the female so seldom that I wondered how she could survive. There was however, evidence that the male of this pair was an inexperienced bird, possibly young, and this his first family.
The female, left to do all the incubating, was very faithful to her task and sat patiently day after day through an extremely rainy period, which continued with only brief respites, all through June and early July in southern New Hampshire. One afternoon there was a severe hailstorm, and the female on the nest with feathers drawn close, bill pointing straight up and eyes shut, made as good a watershed of herself as possible, while hailstones the size of large peas pelted her unmercifully.
The incubation period of the catbird as reported by various observers is 12 or 13 days.
At 4:55 a. m. one more egg was pipped, evidently by the old bird, as it was chipped inward and directly around the center of the egg. The egg hatched at 5:55 p. m., the young bird forcing the shell open by rolling and plunging gently and by some use of the feet and wings. At 6:45 the female carried away half of the shell and returned at 6:48 with something in the bill which she swallowed, tho I could not determine whether it was the crushed shell or food. She left the nest at 6:53 only to return at 6:55 and take away the remaining shell.
In nest C the first egg was pipped at 9:00 a. m. on July 20 and at 7:00 p. m. all three were pipped in practically the same place. The first break in each shell came from within and was a little beyond the center of the egg toward the larger end. It was simply a slight bulging evidently produced by a blow from the beak of the young bird. A series of cracks radiated in all directions from this place. The next thing noticed was the extension of a series of these bulges around the egg at right angles to the long axis. At 11:30 a. m. July 21 one egg had hatched and the shell had been removed. The two other eggs had four of these breaks extending half way around the shell. From this time until 3 o'clock there was no change in appearance although a number of times the female picked gently at the cracked places. On these occasions I could not see that she took anything away although she undoubtedly broke the shell a little by these actions. At 3:00 p. m. she left the nest and was hardly out of sight when the egg she had been picking began to hatch. A dark line appeared around the shell and enlarged in a series of tiny jerks until I could see the young bird kicking and twisting within. The crack grew steadily wider until it was fully half an inch wide on the top of the egg, tho it had hardly opened at all on the side next the nest. At this point the female returned and immediately commenced picking at the shell membrane which still held the two pieces of shell together. As it came away a bit at a time, she swallowed it, repeating the process until the two pieces had fallen apart. She then seized the smaller piece (the big end of the egg and the one that had contained the head of the nestling) and carried it away, leaving the nestling still in the remaining piece. In less than a minute she returned and seized the membrane still attached to the shell. As she pulled on the membrane, the nestling was lifted clear of the nest but fell back without injury. On the second attempt it pulled loose and tumbled the young one into the nest. The membrane was quickly swallowed and the remaining shell carried away. She returned immediately and picked the small bits of shell from the bottom of the nest, devoured them and commenced to brood. The actual process from the time the crack appeared until the last bits of shell were taken from the nest did not exceed 10 minutes.
At 9:28 the next morning (July 22) the female partly rose from the nest displaying the separating halves of the last egg. The process was practically the same as that previously described. The parent again took the smaller piece of the shell first. She then returned and picked at the remaining piece two or three times and brooded for 12 minutes before any other move was made. At the end of that time she rose in the nest, picked the bird up in the shell and then let it down again. The shell then came away from the nestling and was removed, the small pieces being picked carefully from the nest as before.
In these three instances the hatching process seems to have been the same. In each case it was due to the combined efforts of the parent and the young bird within the egg. In the first case the initial movement may have come from the female while in the last two it originated with the young. In all three the female assisted by pecking at the egg and by removing the broken shell from the nestling much sooner than it would have been able to free itself from the pieces.
Dr. Gabrielson found that the catbirds brooded the young very closely during the first days of nest life, but when the young became older they were brooded only about 30 percent of the observation time. The conditions of the weather were an important factor in the determination of the time spent by the female in brooding the young, but in general the brooding time resolved itself into three distinct periods:
The first period [was] from 4:30 a. m. to 7:30 a. m.; the second from 10:30 a .m. to 2:00 p. m.; and the third from 6:30 p. m. until dark. The first period was undoubtedly as a protection against the chill of the early morning. During the second period the sun's rays fell directly into the nest and the brooding at this time was for the protection against the heat. . . . The brooding in the evening was possibly merely preliminary to settling down on the nest for the night and was the most variable of the three. . . . The position assumed in brooding depended on its purpose. In protecting the nestlings from rain or cold the positions were the same. The female settled down on the nest until it was completely covered and the feathers of the breast were well down over the young. It was also noticed that she generally faced the wind. In brooding as a protection from the heat, she stood on the edge of the nest, with her back to the sun, wings spread, feathers of the breast ruffled and mouth open. From this study the brooding time seems to depend on three factors, viz.--temperature, rainfall, and age of the young. The temperature factor will of course be modified by the length of time the nest is shaded by the surrounding vegetation. As the yonng become older the brooding becomes less intense for heat or cold but remains about the same as a protection against rain.
The catbird is scrupulous in the sanitation of the nest. The excreta is rarely allowed to touch the nest but is taken from the young and immediately eaten or removed. During the observations at the nest Dr. Gabrielson states: "The excreta was removed 125 times, 88 times from the nestling last fed, 20 times from some other one and in 17 instances it was not determined. . . . Up to the sixth day the excreta was always devoured. . .and the remainder carried away. The proportion carried away, increased to the end of the study."
Dr. Gabrielson observed the departure of one of the young as follows: "His departure was accomplished very simply. At about 11:15 a. m. he climbed to the edge of the nest and attempted to jump to a twig a short distance away. He fell short and tumbled to the ground without injury. At this time the parents appeared and coaxed him off into the thick underbrush in the ravine. The next morning both of the others were gone from the nest."
R. W. Shufeldt (1893) observed the details of the nesting of a pair of catbirds that built their nest in a honeysuckle vine under the roof of his veranda. The young remained in the nest 10 days, and he records their departure as follows:
At 6:45 p. m. on June 5, all the birds left the nest together. No one was near it at the time, and there appeared to be no special disturbing cause. There was threatening weather, to be sure, and low rumbling thunder at the time, but no lightning nor loud reports. We were dining at that hour, and my first knowledge of their having left the nest was my attention being called to a young one near the open dining-room door, which led out on the veranda. All the young were easily made prisoners on the ground, and I consigned them to a comfortable cage, which I hung up under the roof close to the nest. Here the parents faithfully fed them through the cage wires until noon of June 8, at which time any one of them could fly 50 or 60 feet with considerable vigor. Fearing that something might happen to them in the cage, at the time just mentioned I took them all down to the lower end of my garden and let them go in the dense underbrush that was overshadowed by numbers of second growth oaks and other trees.
Mrs. Helen G. Whittle (1925) determined by banding that a pair of catbirds remained mated for both the first and second broods of the season of 1924. They both appeared the following May and again reared their broods. S. E. Perkins, 3d (1928) banded a pair of catbirds on June 6, 1926, when they were nesting, and on July 11, 1926, they were retrapped, when they were still mates at the second nest. The following year on June 24, 1927, the same pair were mated and using a nest built within 5 feet of both 1926 nests. J. D. Black (1929) states that five consecutive broods were raised in the same rosebush. The first nest was built late in the summer of 1927. In 1928 the birds built a few inches from the 1927 nest and reared two young catbirds. As soon as the young left, a second nest almost touching the first was built and four young were reared. The third nest of the year and the fourth in the bush was built, and two birds again were raised. The chain was broken with the flying of the first 1929 brood. The adults built a second in another rosebush 20 feet away. As far as I know Mr. Black did not band the birds, and one cannot be certain that the adults of the six nestings were the same individuals, but presumably they were. These three cases indicate a constancy of catbirds to their territory and to their mates.
Geoffrey Gill (1935, 1936a) obtained somewhat different results with catbirds banded at Huntington, Long Island. In 12 cases he studied not a pair remained mated for two broods in a single season. Considerable variation was exhibited by the birds in their return to the same territory. One male was constant to one territory for four consecutive summers and six nestings. This male had six different mates in 5 years, but in the last 2 years, as he grew older, he had only one nest each season and during this period was faithful to the same mate. The catbirds that Mr. Gill studied frequently changed their territory for different nestings. It is evident that there is considerable individual variation in the constancy of catbirds to their mates and territory.
An anonymous writer (1887) reports from Laramie, Wyo., that he found a catbird living on intimate terms with a shrike; both pairs of birds built their nests in the same bush, but each seemed to hold undisputed possession of their particular side of the bush. Mrs. Kenneth B. Wetherbee (1930) reports a unique case of the interrelationship of a pair of catbirds and a pair of robins, which built their nests in the same clump of lilacs. The robin and catbird took turns in incubating the catbird eggs, and when the young hatched they were brooded by both robins and catbirds. The robin's nest was a few feet above that of the catbird and was not discovered until the young catbirds had left their nest. It would be interesting to know whether the catbirds assisted the robins in their household duties.
Catbirds have been known to care for the young of other birds. Earl Brooks (1922) writes of a brood of orphaned cardinals that were fed and mothered by a catbird, and W. J. Hayward (1937) reports a case where a mother catbird fed a half-grown flicker that had been dislodged from its nest and separated from its parents during a severe storm. The feeding instincts are strongly developed in catbirds, and if they have lost their own young through some misfortune they will readily adopt the offspring of others.
In contrast to the behavior described above the catbird occasionally destroys the eggs of other birds, but this habit is not characteristic of the species. J. B. W. (1884) reports he saw a catbird destroy an egg of the wood pewee before the latter succeeded in driving it away from its nest. Edwin Dixon (1930) states that a catbird was found robbing a chipping sparrow's nest. It ate the contents of one egg and picked holes in the other two. Proof that the egg was eaten was obtained by shooting the catbird. Leda W. Chace (1931) saw a catbird glide into a locust tree outside her window where a robin's nest was located. The catbird was seen to thrust its bill into one of the eggs and lift it clear of the nest. Later another of the robin's eggs was found on the ground with a punctured side as if a large needle had pierced it.
Plumages.--In the juvenal plumage of the catbird the pileum is a dull sooty brown, many shades lighter than that of the adult. The wings and tail are nearly black as in the adult, the primaries and secondaries edged with smoke gray, the coverts browner edged, the tail with indistinct barring; the interscapular region brownish ashy, shading into pale mouse gray indistinctly mottled with clove brown or rufous, the throat and sides faintly tinged with sepia, the crissum pale, dead cinnamon or mars brown. Bill and feet dusky pinkish buff becoming black.
The first winter plumage, according to Jonathan Dwight (1900)--
is acquired by a partial postjuvenal moult, beginning early in August, which involves the body plumage and the wing coverts, but not the rest of the wings nor the tail, young and old become practically indistinguishable. Similar to the previous plumage but much grayer and no mottling. Everywhere clear slate-gray, much paler below and on the sides of the head and neck; the pileum black; the crissum deep chestnut.
The first nuptial plumage acquired by wear which produces little obvious change.
The adult winter plumage acquired by a complete post-juvenal moult in August. Practically indistinguishable from the first winter; the wings and tail perhaps averaging blacker and with grayer edgings. The adult nuptial plumage acquired by wear as in the young bird.
According to Chapman (1916) "some females have the crown and upper parts slightly browner than in the male but they vary too little to make the sexes certainly distinguishable. The catbird shows no geographic variation throughout its wide range."
Some individuals present a variation in the relative amount of the chestnut coloring of the crissum. Lincoln (1920) reports that a specimen captured at Washington, D. C., had an extreme restriction of the chestnut. "Basally," he says, "there was no trace of chestnut which was present only in the form of a very narrow edging (in no place as much as a sixteenth of an inch in width) beginning about midway of the feathers and continuing around the tips."
Alexander Wetmore (1936) has determined the number and weight of the contour feathers of many of our passeriform birds. In a catbird obtained June 4, 1933, weighing 35.6 grams, there were 1,733 contour feathers weighing 2.3 grams.
Albinism is of relatively common occurrence in the catbird; many both pure and partial albinistic forms have been reported of which the following are representative. Mrs. F. L. Battell (1941) writes of seeing two albino catbirds that appeared with the parent catbirds at Ames, Iowa, during the summer of 1940. Although nearly full grown they were still fed by the adults. The young were pure white, even the feathers of the crissum being without a trace of color. R. Deane (1879) reports an immature catbird collected at Hyde Park, Ill., on July 21, 1878, and pure white albino with pink eyes captured alive at Trenton, N. J. R. J. Middleton (1936) trapped a nearly pure white specimen at Norristown, Pa. The under parts of this specimen were grayish white with a tinge of reddish brown on the under tail coverts; the back was gray and the head about the color of the back of normal specimens. Annie T. Slosson (1883) writes of a partial albinistic catbird that she kept in captivity at Hartford. This bird had a band of white across the tail, about an inch from the tip. There was also one white feather in the wing, but otherwise the coloration was normal. The band in the tail was very conspicuous especially when the tail was spread.
Food.--Unfortunately the food habits of the catbird are not entirely beneficial from the standpoint of the interests of man. Bitter complaints of damage, perhaps in some instances greatly exaggerated, have come from the growers of berries and owners of orchards.
To obtain a true picture of its food habits it is well to examine not only the records of the stomach-content analyses of representative specimens taken over the entire range of distribution but also the numerous field observations that have been made concerning the food of this important and attractive bird.
VEGETABLE FOOD: According to Sylvester Judd (1895), who examined the stomach contents of 213 catbirds, only 13 of the birds had eaten strawberries and 20 had taken cherries. However, Judd calls our attention to the fact that though the bird may eat the bulk of only one strawberry or cherry a score may have been pecked, and the injury of a single grape in a bunch detracts from the value of the whole bunch. F. E. L. Beal (1918), reporting on the stomach contents of 645 catbirds, states that 56 percent of the food was vegetable; one-third of which consisted of cultivated fruits or those that may be cultivated such as strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries. The remainder of the vegetable matter was mostly wild fruit, such as wild cherries, dogwood, sourgum, elderberries, greenbrier, spiceberries, black alder, and sumac. C. C. Purdum (1902) in the examination of 192 stomachs found18 percent of the food to be cultivated fruits, 35 percent wild fruits, and 2 percent miscellaneous vegetable matter, making a total of 55 percent, practically the same as the determinations made by Beal.
That the catbird can subsist on a purely vegetable diet, even under adverse conditions, is shown by the large number of reports of this bird wintering in the north as far as the New England states, a time when no insects are to be found but when an abundance of berries is present in their winter haunts. C. E. Moulton (1921) observed a catbird at frequent intervals at Lynn, Mass., from January 10 until April 6. This individual fed chiefly on the berries of the buckthorn. It remained within the limits of a little swamp among the hills which was completely surrounded with woods. The bushes were overrun with catbrier filled with berries. There was an abundance of mountain-ash and bittersweet, which furnished a full larder for this wintering bird. W. H. Ball (1927) observed a catbird near Washington, D. C., during December and January 1925 - 26, which he found was subsisting chiefly on the berries of the honeysuckle vines. A. W. Schorger (1926) collected a catbird at Madison, Wis., on December 20, the stomach of which was filled with the fruit of the climbing bittersweet. Witmer Stone (1913b), in presenting the records of William Bartram, cites the record of a catbird that was seen and heard singing in Bartram's garden on January 8, 1820. On the next day it was seen feeding on the berries of Sideroxylon; although a violent storm raged on January 10 and the snow covered the ground the bird still remained, evidently attracted by the berries. P. A. Taverner (1919) states that the catbirds observed by him in the Red Deer River district, Alberta, fed chiefly on buffaloberries. Otto Widmann (1907) states that the late migrants in fall congregate in the region of St. Louis to feed on wild grapes. H. Brackbill (1942) studied the food habits of a catbird at Baltimore, Md., from November 3, 1940, until February 23, 1941. Feeding was observed on 23 days, during which five foods were eaten, including the Japanese honeysuckle, which was eaten on 21 days from December 1 through February 23. The latter was eaten in great quantities, at one time he saw the bird eat 30 of the berries in 22 minutes in addition to other food. It was also seen to eat the haws of the cockspur thorn, frost grapes, and seeds of poison ivy and sumac.
In Florida, where the catbird is a regular though not abundant winter resident, various observers have reported the birds subsisting on holly, poke, and smilax berries, balsam apples, and Barbados cherries, and stomachs of catbirds collected at Micco, Fla., were found to contain the seeds of the saw palmetto. It is obvious from the foregoing representative reports that the catbird can adapt itself to a purely vegetable diet, and this accounts for the surprising number of winter records over a wide range, even in sections of the country where cold weather and snow prevail.
From an economic standpoint the vegetable diet of the catbird as a whole does not represent a serious loss. Under certain conditions the growers of berries, grapes, cherries, and other fruits do have a just grievance. According to F. E. L. Beal (1897), most of these complaints come from the Mississippi Valley where fruit-bearing shrubs, which afford such a large part of the bird's food, are conspicuously absent. With the settlement of the region comes the extensive planting of orchards, vineyards, and small fruit gardens, which furnish shelter and nesting sites for the catbird and other species. There is in consequence a large increase in the number of birds, but no corresponding gain in the supply of native fruits upon which they are accustomed to feed. Under these circumstances, what is more natural than for the birds to turn to cultivated fruits for their food? Cultivated fruits can be protected by planting the wild species, which are preferred by the birds. For example, the Russian mulberry is preferred to all varieties of cutivated fruits, and the planting of a number of these trees will solve the problem of devastation by the catbird and at the same time preserve this bird, which at certain seasons is a useful destroyer of insects. That the catbirds are attracted by wild berries and fruits is shown by the experience of Geoffrey Gill (1936a), who by planting Scotch pine for cover and wild blackberry canes and other berry-bearing shrubs for food at his banding station in Huntington, Long Island, increased the number of catbirds from 72 individuals in 1931 to 183 in 1935.
In New England few complaints are ever lodged against the catbird. For example, F. E. L. Beal, of Lunenburg, Mass., says: "On my farm in Massachusetts I have raised strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries by the acre, with grapes, pears, and apples in abundance, and although the farm was nearly surrounded by woods and was adjacent to a swamp where the catbirds and thrashers abounded, I never knew one of them to touch a single fruit, though perhaps they have taken a few. I thought no more of accusing the catbirds or robins of fruit stealing than I would the swallows in the barn."
ANIMAL FOOD: The damage done by the catbird in its depredations on cultivated fruits is compensated for by the injurious insects eaten at other seasons of the year. The animal food contained in the stomachs of 645 catbirds as reported by F. E. L. Beal (1897) constitutes 44 percent of the entire contents. The animal food is chiefly insects, most of which are serious pests to crops. Ants, beetles, caterpillars, and grasshoppers make up three-fourths of the animal food, the remainder consisting of miscellaneous insects and spiders. In the examination of 192 stomachs of the catbird C. C. Purdum (1902) found that ants constituted 10 percent of the entire food, beetles 24 percent, caterpillars 5 percent, grasshoppers 4 percent, bugs 2 percent, spiders and thousandlegs 4 percent, and miscellaneous animal food 5 percent. According to S. D. Judd (1895), in May when the catbird arrives from the South two-thirds of its food is animal matter made up chiefly of ants, thousandlegs, May beetles, predaceous ground beetles, and caterpillars. For the first part of June the May ratio of the animal to vegetable matter is sustained, but during the latter part of the month the proportion of vegetable food increases. Early in the season the catbirds eat few grasshoppers and crickets, but by the end of June these insects constitute 10 percent of their food. Five catbirds examined in June contained an average of 30 grasshoppers each. After June the number of grasshoppers dwindles to insignificance. The number of May beetles eaten increases from the first to the twentieth of June, but after this time they are also replaced by fruits. By August the percentage of insects eaten drops to 1 percent but rises again in September. The examination of 213 stomachs reveals that beetles and ants form the most important food of the catbird, though smooth caterpillars play no insignificant part. Crickets and grasshoppers are relished and come next in importance. The less important though constant parts of the fare are thousandlegs, centipeds, bugs, and spiders. In addition to the insects revealed by stomach examinations, field observations indicate that many and diverse kinds of insects are eaten.
J. C. Wood (1905) observed catbirds catching and eating the large cecropia, prometheus, and sphinx moths, which were also fed to the young. H. B. Wood (1930) reports seeing a catbird capture and eat a large number of honeybees that had invaded a summer cottage. Henry Mousley (1932) found the catbird to be one of the most important destroyers of Japanese beetles. E. H. Forbush (1907) states that he saw catbirds eating plant lice for hours at a time. He also reports seeing them feed extensively on gypsy and browntail moth larvae. R. S. Deck (1928) observed them feeding on dragonflies. Jennie K. Macoubrie (1932) gives an interesting account of a catbird that entered a basement laboratory through an open window to feed on museum pests, dermestid beetles. For a period of two weeks it made frequent visits in and out, each time carrying one of the beetles to its young. Perhaps the most unusual departure from the usual food habits of the catbird was reported by Dr. John C. Phillips (1927), who saw the birds wading in shallow water at the Sutton fish hatchery, where they were deftly catching and swallowing trout fry about 11/2 inches long. According to the superintendent of the hatchery it was a common habit among several pairs of catbirds that nested close by. W. L. McAtee (1926a), in his study of the relation of birds to woodlots, mentions the following insects eaten by the catbird that have not been previously mentioned. "Among the ants are numerous carpenter ants which are given to hollowing out trees. The beetles include numerous forms detrimental to the forest, as leaf chafers, goldsmith beetles, junebugs, nut weevils, bark beetles, and other weevils. . . . Other injurious beetles taken are the round-headed wood borers, including the ash borer (Necolytus capraea), leaf beetles, including the grapevine flea beetle (Fidia viticida) and the locust leaf miner (Odontota dorsalis). Plant lice, leaf hoppers, tree hoppers, psyllids, cicadas, sawflies, and white ants are additional enemies of trees that the Catbird consumes." Francis H. Allen has observed the catbird feeding among the dead leaves on the ground. Quoting from his correspondence: "Catbirds throw the leaves aside with their bills. The motion is much like a sidewise rooting, but sometimes I have seen clearly that the leaf was picked up in the bill and thrown very quickly to one side or the other or behind. A leaf will often go a foot or a foot and a half, and sometimes one will drop on the bird's tail."
Various observers have reported the catbird's fondness for such food as cheese, bread, raisins, currants, milk, corn flakes and puffed wheat soaked in milk, mushrooms, garbage, boiled potato, fried fish, beef stew, peanuts, and beef soup. E. G. Holt and G. M. Sutton (1926) report that a catbird ate bits of meat of skinned specimens that they were preparing at Gator Lake, Fla. Indeed the food eaten is so diversified in nature that the catbird can be considered omnivorous in its food habits. Few birds are more adaptable in eating any kind of food that chances to be readily accessible.
Perhaps the most useful eating trait of the catbird in its relation to man's interest is its frequent concentration on certain destructive insects that become abundant during severe infestations. It is at such times that the catbird arises to the situation and renders great service in keeping the ravages of the pests in check. S. A. Forbes (1883) has vividly described the important action of catbirds on the orchard infestations of cankerworms in Illinois. W. L. McAtee (1920) tells how the periodic abundance of cicadas almost entirely diverted the attacks of catbirds from cultivated fruits. Phoebe Knappen (1933) reports that catbirds which discovered a sawfly infestation of an ash tree fed on the larvae exclusively as long as the insects were in evidence. During the great plague of armyworms in New Jersey, New York, and New England states of the summer of 1914 there were many reports of catbirds as well as other birds, which fed ravenously on these pests. Edward A. Gill Wylie (1914) wrote: "The present plague of armyworms. . .provides a severe example to us of one of the many reasons why the number of insectivorous birds should not only be conserved but materially increased. A horde of these pests suddenly came to light on a small place about 4 acres large. . . . Immediately the birds of the neighborhood deserted their usual haunts and assembled on these four acres. They ate so many [of the armyworms] that often a bird would disgorge and proceed to make a fresh start. . .at least one-half of the worms were consumed by them (catbirds and others) in the 2 days that elapsed before the spraying by experts commenced to destroy what was left." E. H. Eaton (1914) writes of a plague of cankerworms in the orchards of Monroe County, N. Y., in 1898. The orchards were practically denuded by the worms. He observed the catbirds and other birds swallowing the larvae at the rate of 15 to 40 a minute.
FOOD OF THE YOUNG: S. D. Judd (1900) examined the stomach contents of 14 young nestlings of the catbird and 11 adults mainly the parents of the young. The old birds had taken 91 percent of their food in fruits: buckthorn, catbrier, cherries, raspberries, and blackberries. The nestlings, however, had eaten fruit to the extent of only 4 percent of their food, and the remainder of their diet was principally ants, beetles, caterpillars, spiders, and grasshoppers.
Dr. I. N. Gabrielson (1913) made detailed observations of the food fed by adult catbirds to their nestlings. Practically all the food delivered consisted of insects, and it was only during the last 2 days that food in the form of raspberries and gooseberries was fed to the young. Out of 596 feedings observed there were 99 flies, 55 beetles, 52 larvae, 42 mayflies, 40 grasshoppers, 35 moths, 21 measuring-worms and 21 worms of various species, 17 spiders, 11 crickets, 9 katydids, 8 caterpillars, 8 raspberries, 6 dragonflies, 5 wireworms, 3 butterflies, and 1 each of mosquito, small frog, and gooseberry. There were 161 unidentified morsels chiefly insects too small or too crushed to determine with accuracy. Dr. Gabrielson's observations reveal the great variety of insects and the comparatively small amount of fruit that is delivered to the young when insect life is abundant, as it was in the vicinity of the nests he studied.
If all these varied food habits are considered from a purely economic standpoint the catbird will be found to have much in its favor to counteract the less than 20 percent of its food that consists of cultivated fruits useful to man.
Behavior.--Although the catbird usually establishes itself in a well-defined territory to which it challenges all intruders, it does at times live in harmony with other birds. E. A. Doolittle (1923) writes of a catbird nest containing four eggs that was built in a little thorn bush hardly 3 feet high. Less than 4 feet from the catbird's nest and on the same level was a nest and five eggs of the yellow warbler. Apparently the catbirds made no effort to disturb their smaller neighbors and were indulgent with their presence.
The catbird is not so adapatable in solving unusual situations with which it may be confronted, as some other birds. Dr. A. A. Allen (1912) found that if a cloth is placed over a phoebe's nest, the bird with a single glance grasped the situation and immediately removed the obstacle. The catbird, however, was at a total loss as to what to do under a similar situation.
During the first 10 minutes that the cloth was in place upon the nest, the female bird inspected ten times at fairly regular intervals, usually peering from the rear of the side. The first and eighth times, however, she walked around the edge of the nest. After the tenth inspection, an interval of 4 minutes ensued before she returned. She then passed around the nest, but inspected its edges more than the rag. The feathers of the nape were usually raised during inspection. After an interval of 1 minute, she approached the nest from the side, crouching and ruffling the feathers as if about to incubate. She then left for 4 minutes. Appearing again, she started to incubate on the thick mat of twigs and leaves at one side of the nest, remaining in this position with the feathers ruffled for 30 seconds. The next time she stayed away 9 minutes and returned only to inspect from the rear. Intervals of 6 and 7 minutes followed, the bird apparently taking less and less interest in the nest. Realizing this, I became anxious for the safety of the eggs and removed the cloth. In 3 minutes more she was back in the bush but did not inspect the nest. Ten minutes later, however, she returned apparently to stay, inspected the eggs and began at once to incubate. . . .
What light this throws on the natures of the two birds. The one, with changing conditions, has been able to adapt itself, the other has remained ever the same. Surely this foreshadows the future. At present both are among our common birds. The phoebe will become more and more so as he copes with new conditions, the catbird rarer and rarer as time goes on.
Voice.--The catbird at its best stands high in the ranks of our American bird singers. Each year one appears in my backyard, and immediately upon his arrival his song is the most delightful feature of the chorus of the multitude of bird voices. A good catbird song needs no apology. The bird sits on some tall spray rising above the general tangle of shrubs, its tail depressed and body held low to the perch, and pours forth its medley of song. Phrase follows phrase in rapid succession, and snatches of all the bird songs in the neighborhood appear intermixed with occasional harsher notes, which are given with as much care and finish as the more melodious ones. When an intruder is detected approaching, the outpour stops with a sudden squeak, the tail flies up, and the bird comes to attention. No matter how many years we may listen to his performance there is always something new and interesting to be learned from his varied renditions. The catbird is individualistic, and while one bird may be unusually versatile and of prima-donna rank others may be quite ordinary in their ability to imitate and very mediocre in the quality of their voice.
"The song in general," as analyzed in notes by A. A. Saunders, "is long-continued and of phrases that are greatly varied with pauses between them. It differs from both the mockingbird and the brown thrasher in that phrases very rarely consist of repetitions of certain notes. The quality is not quite so full and rich as that of the mockingbird or thrasher. In my records pitch ranges three tones more than an octave, from Ab'' to D''''." According to Albert B. Brand (1938), who has determined vibration frequencies of many of the passerine bird songs by recordings on motion-picture film, the song of the catbird has a frequency ranging from the lowest note of 1,100 to the highest of 4,375. The approximate mean of the recordings of the catbird's song was determined to be 3,000 vibrations.
Winsor M. Tyler describes the usual song of the catbird as a "series of quick, bright widely varying phrases, which is continued sometimes for 5 minutes or more. In form it is like the brown thrasher's song but is more disjointed and does not run on with the regular beat of the thrasher, but is interrupted by pauses and marred by the interpolation of harsh, squeaky, or squawking notes. The phrases may consist of three or four syllables or may be reduced to a single high peep. As we listen we hear such phrases as 'eweet, twit-twit-twit, cherooeekoo, tereet, erokeet,' involving a wide range of pitch. In tone of voice the song sometimes suggests a vireo in some of its phrases but is much more lively. It has a pleasant whistled quality and at its best approaches the rich tone of the talented robin.
"When singing, the catbird as a rule is half hidden in the shrubbery, but he sometimes mounts on the top of a bush to sing. He stands with wings drooped, tail hanging low, rump feathers elevated, and body somewhat humped up. Often he turns his head from side to side, and as he sings he opens his bill wide. As he goes on he seems to be trying experiments, perhaps for his own amusement, but we sometimes get an impression that his song is addressed to an audience, perhaps to ourselves, for he often glances over his shoulder as if to say, 'How's that?' There appears to be a bit of the clown in the catbird's nature."
At times the song has a soft ventriloquial character, seeming to come from everywhere about; again it is loud and easily traced to its source. At the approach of any disturbing element the song ceases and the angry catlike mew is uttered, a note that has given origin to the unfortunate name. This note, a petulant cry or snarl, an impolite whine, lazy and drawling, is long-drawn-out with a falling inflection at the end. This call is one of the most outstanding characteristics of its varied song. Often we may be in doubt as to the identity of a certain song if the singer is hidden from view, but when the catbird interrupts its musical phrases with this cat call it at once dispels all uncertainty.
Another note of the catbird is a harsh, sharply enunciated chatter, rather wren like. We may hear this note suddenly rattle out with startling effect from the shrubbery where a bird is hiding or sometimes from the air as he flies away. E. P. Bicknell (1884) describes one of its characteristic vocal accomplishments as a short crackling sound like the snapping of small fagots. E. A. Samuels (1872) writes: "The alarm note is a rattling cry, like the sound of quick breaking of several sticks: it is perhaps well expressed by the syllables trat-tat tat tat uttered very quickly."
Still another note we hear issuing from the catbird's tangle is a low, mellow chuck, like the soft quack of a duck giving the impression of being uttered way back in the throat--a note of minor alarm. B. Hoffmann (1904) describes notes resembling a mellow cluck and occasionally a grating chatter, kak-kak-kak.
Associated with the courtship is a whistled monosyllable, peer, suggestive of the notes of the pine grosbeak.
A. A. Saunders (1929a) writes:
The catbird during courtship sings a song that differs from the territory song chiefly in intensity. It is low and soft and almost in a whisper and is usually sung with the bill closed. One must be near the singer to hear the song. The bird closes its bill and sings the familiar carol so softly that it is audible only a short distance; at times the catbird accompanying them with a grotesque display, spreading the wings and tail and fluffing out the feathers.
It is not always certain, however, that peculiar songs at the height of the mating season are stimulated by the presence of the female. At times they may be due to the presence of a rival male, for bird song is used in battle as well as in courtship. It is not uncommon to see birds fighting in the season of courtship and mating. Whether the battle be over mates, or over territory it is often accomplished by song.
During the summer of 1910 the catbirds were abundant about Fairyland Place, Bermuda Islands. A pair of them had built their nest in a cedar tree about 4 feet above ground and just outside my window. The song of unusually high musical quality, pleasing and indescribably beautiful, was sung frequently throughout the day and sometimes well into the night. One of this pair was seen and heard to sing while on the nest, a curious behavior, which would seem to advertise the location of the nest to possible enemies lurking in the neighborhood. This trait is not peculiar to the Bermuda catbird residents, for O. W. Knight (1908) writes: "I have known the male bird to engage in song while on the nest and to keep it up for some minutes at a time." Several observers have seen the female catbird singing while on the nest. Helen G. Whittle (1923) writes: "One day as I sat close to the window, within 3 or 4 feet of her, I was amazed and delighted to hear her, while sitting on the nest, take up the strain her lord was singing. She followed it in all of its intricacies, perfectly and beautifully, but in a 'whisper' voice. On a later day she did a similar thing, though in briefer, less brilliant fashion."
On June 28, 1907, I was camping on the Ohio River near Shelterville, southern Illinois. About midnight I was awakened by a chorus of bird voices. It was a gorgeous, clear, moonlit night, so bright that it was almost like day. When I strolled outside the camp I heard the songs of the yellow-breasted chat, the mockingbird, the Carolina wren, and the catbird, in this unusual medley of moonlight serenaders. They all seemed at their best, but had it not been for the fact that I could see the singers it would have been difficult to identify some of the performers. Both the mockingbird and catbird were giving a full series of imitations and at times were carrying the parts of the chat and wren of this musical quartet.
In correspondence received from Francis H. Allen he writes: "On May 19, 1923, nearly 2 hours before sunrise, I heard the nocturnal song from a catbird. He sang for some time very sweetly but slowly, the phrases coming much farther apart than in the usual daytime singing." Mrs. Marie A. Commons (1930) has beautifully and graphically described the nocturnal song of the catbird as follows: "And at night, when white flowers in the garden shine faintly luminous in the world of shadows and ipomoeas on the pergola gleam like pale moons, caressing the air with fragrance, it is then that our cavalier is transformed into a celestial singer, as soul-stirring as the nightingale in the Old World gardens or the mockingbird in southern climes."
Many observers have heard and reported the "whisper" songs of several species of birds, but this trait is most pronounced in the catbird. It seems to be heard most frequently in autumn, but it may be given at all seasons. J. W. Lloyd (1914) gives an account of the whisper song of the catbird he heard on September 14, 1908, well after the nesting season: "A catbird, not over 4 or 5 feet from me, sitting trustfully on a stick among the weeds, quite unconcerned, and singing in such a low, fine voice that I could only just hear him. . . . His throat merely, trembled, and occasionally the bill parted just a trifle. Yet his song seemed the full repertoire of the catbird, including. . .two faint mews. The whisper song was heard in the autumn on subsequent years which may or may not have been the same individual. Penelope Baldwin (1929) tells of her experience in hearing this song in the spring as follows: "I saw a catbird. . .in the plum tree just outside my window. There was no sound of his song, but I could see that he was singing. Quietly I opened the window. In came the smell of plum blossoms, in came humming of a thousand bees, in came the whispered song of the catbird, tranquil and clear, indescribably lovely."
The catbird possesses a remarkable talent in mimicking the calls and songs of other birds--in fact any sound it may hear whether it be a cackling hen, an agonizing squeak of an ungreased wagon wheel, or the musical song of its bird neighbors. Some individual catbirds are extremely versatile, yet you may listen to others throughout the season and never hear a recognizable imitation. There is also a variation in the quality of the song.
There are so many reports from reliable observers of the mimicking ability of the catbird that we must conclude that it approaches a very close second to that expert the mockingbird. E. H. Forbush (1929) writes: "It is somewhat startling. . .to hear the catbird's sweetest song interrupted by a perfect imitation of some harsh cry such as that of the great crested flycatcher, the squawk of a hen, the cry of a lost chicken or the spitting of a cat. . . . He is inclined to attempt to imitate the most common sounds, such as the croaking of the frogs and the utterances of barnyard fowls, but also sometimes succeeds in reproducing unusual musical sounds."
Marie E. Hegler (1923) gives an interesting account of her experience in teaching a catbird a whistled call. The bird did not respond the first summer, but in the following spring it was heard to utter the whistle followed by a series of cat calls, when it first arrived. Thereafter it was frequently heard throughout the summer.
Mary M. Russell (1929) gives an account of hearing a catbird imitate the call of a whippoorwill. The imitation was short, staccato, with a happy lilt, but very, very real. At one time when the catbird, perched in the branches of a cherry tree, was singing his song, Miss Russell began to whistle the whippoorwill call. He continued singing but was deaf to her call. She went closer and continued to whistle the notes. After many repetitions the catbird suddenly stopped short, perked up his head to one side, and after a moment of complete silence sang whip-poor-will four times.
Winton Weydemeyer (1930) writes of an unusual case of mimicry by a catbird. A wandering male bobolink appeared at his ranch in Montana where these birds are not common but in recent years have been extending their range to the state. For at least half an hour during the morning of May 31, when the bobolink first arrived, a catbird from a nearby brushy flat perched on fence posts near the flying bobolink and mimicked its song. In many of its imitations it repeated the entire song of the bobolink, without introducing foreign notes or phrases. Another interesting feature of the performance was the persistence of the catbird in repeating the imitation so many times without the interspersion of other singing. On July 22 Mr. Weydemeyer was astonished to hear what sounded like a typical flight song of the bobolink. He then saw a catbird fly out and upward until it reached a height of about 30 feet above the brush; then while descending at an angle, its flight slow and jerky, but not fluttering, it gave a strikingly realistic rendition of the bobolink's flight song. This is the first case of combined song and flight mimicry that the observer had ever noted in the catbird.
Dr. C. W. Townsend (1905) says for a moment he was deceived by a catbird that swooped down one July day and flew across the Ipswich River with a perfect kingfisher rattle and action. Later Dr. Townsend (1924), in his excellent account of mimicry of voice in birds, wrote:
He appears to be constantly trying some new combination of notes, and some of his improvisations are very sweet and musical. These he occasionally repeats in a manner of the brown thrasher, particularly when a musical phrase appears to tickle his fancy. Thus I once heard a catbird rolling off a delightful phrase which sounded like "Peter-boro, Peterboro." This he repeated five or six times, then "mewed" and tried something else. If the catbird would suppress his love of bazarre and harsh notes, and of buffoonery and horseplay--for I suspect he has a sense of humor--and would devote himself more continually to his musical repertoire, he would rank among our best singers.
Dr. Townsend gives us an imposing list of catbird imitations of bird songs or their calls from his own experience and that of other observers. The list includes blue jay, bobwhite, flicker, robin, barn swallow, goldfinch, rose-breasted grosbeak, veery, wood thrush, red-eyed, yellow-throated, and solitary vireos, brown thrasher, greater yellowlegs, least flycatcher, crested flycatcher, wood pewee, cowbird, chewink, scarlet tanager, and black-polled warbler. A. A. Saunders, who has given particular attention to the imitations of the catbird, lists many of the above and in addition the red-shouldered hawk, killdeer, phoebe, bluebird, blue-headed vireo, redstart, the yellow, magnolia, black-throated blue, black-throated green, chestnut-sided, and prairie warblers, western meadowlark, and cardinal. He has also heard the catbird imitate the tree frog (Hyla versicolor). Many other imitations have been reported. It is apparent that the range of its imitations are limitless. This enterprising bird is ever on the alert and is constantly experimenting in the mimicking of any note, song, or sound that it may hear. However, only a comparatively few are so versatile, and not every individual catbird indulges in such extensive mimicry.
The song of the catbird has never impressed me as conveying the expression of sadness, yet that is the way it appealed to the Chippewa Indian naturalist who named it Ma-ma-dive-bi-ne-shi, meaning the bird that cries with grief.
In correspondence received from Francis H. Allen he writes: "Catbirds vary more than most birds in their powers of song. One year I had one on my place in West Roxbury, Mass., that hardly ever sang anything more than one, two, or three short phrases at a time, usually only two, which I memorized as William-see-me. Sometimes it was William and nothing more. Again my catbird another year may be one with an astonishing repertoire, including sweet phrases of his own and a number of striking imitations. One of these accomplished musicians imitated the crested flycatcher, wood pewee, blue jay, towhee (song), scarlet tanager (song), red-eyed vireo (song), black-poll warbler (song), brown thrasher, and robin. Sometimes a catbird will surprise one with a wholly original and unexpected vocal performance. On May 15, 1942, the catbird that had sung fairly steadily near my house for some days was silent almost all day but in the afternoon broke his silence with a succession or raucous, quite unmusical, and uncatbirdlike notes of varied character but always high-pitched and often repeating the same note or phrase many times in succession. These notes were delivered in the manner of a song, the bird being stationary and with no other bird nearby. Sometimes the bill was open and sometimes to all appearances closed, but the pulsations of the throat were always plain to be seen. It was as if this bird had lost his voice, but later I heard some ordinary catbird strains from him.
"Catbirds can utter uncatbirdlike notes on occasions of excitement as well as calm. On May 29, 1916, in West Roxbury, I heard from a thicket a curious harsh note, that I did not recognize, repeated several times. It suggested a jay's scream with a little of a downy woodpecker quality. This was followed by a sweet warbled phrase given three or four times; then came the strange harsh notes again. My first thought was of a chat, and I was surprised when I found the notes came from a catbird that was flying about closely pursued by another. The birds kept up the performance for10 minutes or so before I left them. The singer discontinued the harsh notes soon but kept up the sweet warbling notes and gave from time to time other song notes of a catbird character besides the mew, the chatter, and the sharp chip. The song notes were uttered disconnectedly, except that one might be given two or three times in succession, and were frequently given on the wing, perhaps oftener on the wing than when the bird was alighted. The pursuing bird would sometimes almost strike the singer and alight beyond him and sometimes would stop 5 or 10 feet short of him. This one was silent, but once when it alighted near me I saw it opening and shutting its bill in a threatening manner. The two were on the wing most of the time, the stops being very short, and they dodged hither and thither among the branches, flying pretty swiftly, but kept inside an area perhaps 30 or 40 feet square. Whether this was courtship or territory defense I cannot say, but it evidently was not a combat a outrance.
"Again, on May 12, 1938, in West Roxbury, at about 8 p. m. with the temperature about 45 o F., I heard a strange medley of squawks and discordant cries interspersed with repetitions of high-pitched phrases of a more melodious character coming from a wet spot in the woods. Again I could think only of the yellow-breasted chat, but again I found that catbirds were responsible. In this case there were three or four of them flitting about low in the trees and bushes. After keeping up this performance for some time, during which not a single one of the notes suggested a catbird to me, they separated, and at least two and I think three of them sang normal songs for a short time. The strange notes were various in character, some having a jarring quality. The high-pitched notes were usually, if not always, repetitions of a single phrase over and over again."
The catbird sings from the time of its arrival in spring until late in July or August but with decreasing regularity toward the end of this period. According to A. A. Saunders, "some individuals cease singing about the time the last egg is laid, and do not resume singing again till the young are out of the nest several days." Saunders says further:
In some cases the second or third nest is built before the young of the previous nest are out and in such cases the song is not resumed. The average date for cessation of song in 14 years in Allegany State Park, N. Y., is July 28 with the latest date August 11, 1940. In Connecticut it seems to last a little longer and in the Adirondacks I did not hear it after July 4. This bird rarely sings in the fall, and then the song is generally primitive, that is, faint, whispered, and rather indefinite in form. I have heard it October 22, 1927, September 24 and October 9, 1932, September 3 and 5, 1937, and October 8, 1939.
Francis H. Allen writes that in September he has heard a catbird utter a note resembling chip-tit, the last syllable very short and fainter than the other, coming like a sort of echo of the first. Mr. Allen has also recorded the notes of the young as follows: "From young able to fly well, a sharp high-pitched chippering note with something of a thrill to it at times. It suggests a familiar note of the slate-colored junco. Also from the young a coarse chip suggestive of the scarlet tanager. They utter a very warbler-like pssp when begging for food, a note that changes from day to day to a chip or hick. Then again they utter a high pitched fee."
Enemies.--Because of the nature of the usual nesting site, a situation in low dense often marshy thickets and usually near the ground, the catbird frequently becomes a victim of various species of snakes. C. J. Clarke (1915) relates an experience at Lenox, Mass., in which a milksnake was found to have swallowed a newly hatched catbird, which it had taken from a nest. The victim was rescued and, though rather the worse for its adventure, was still alive and was carefully returned to the nest. The next day the youngster was still alive, with a third fledgling in the place of one of the eggs he had noted the day before. Hugh Spencer (1928) writes of the persistence of a blacksnake in taking the young from a catbird's nest at Chester, Conn. A member of the family called his attention to a blacksnake that was robbing the nest. He arrived just in time to see the big snake departing while the parents and several other birds cried and scolded. He was unable to get to the nest, which was in a low swamp huckleberry bush surrounded by a thicket of wild-rose brambles. Two young remained. He returned to his work, and in a short time the clamor arose again, but by the time he reached the nest another young had been taken. The experience was repeated, but the snake was frightened, leaving the last young dying on the ground. R. T. Morris (1925) writes of seeing a blacksnake suspended loosely among the branches of a tree with its head within a few inches of a catbird's nest. It was being violently attacked by four catbirds, two kingbirds, a male oriole, and a wren that had come to help the catbirds in distress. The bird mob won the battle, and the snake was driven away. The catbirds continued to harass the snake until it was 100 feet away at a place where it was finally shot by Mr. Morris. G. M. Sutton (1928) reports two cases of catbirds' eggs destroyed by blacksnakes at Pymatuning Swamp, Pa. There are many reports of eggs and young that have been ravaged by snakes, indicating that the latter rank as one of the worst enemies of nesting catbirds. Catbirds that build their nests in the yards and gardens near the homes of man are subject to attacks by the domestic cat. E. D. Nauman (1912) relates an experience in which a pair of nesting catbirds were being molested by a cat at 11 o'clock at night. He was attracted to the nesting site by the fluttering and distress calls of the adults. The cat had climbed the nesting boxelder tree and was within 2 feet of the nest when it was violently driven away by the use of a club. The pair was not molested again and succeeded in rearing their young.
Rats also may be a factor in the lives of the catbirds. In correspondence received from Hervey Brackbill he writes as follows: "Less than 10 minutes after a young bird, on its first day out of the nest, had fluttered from a bush to the ground and hopped off into a little wood lot, a rat appeared, slowly nosing its way in the same direction. Quickly one of the catbirds came on the scene and, perching on one thing and another--twigs and a wire fence--just above the rat, followed it along, queuh-ing continuously. The rat paid no attention, but went into the brush pile about 25 feet short of the young bird. The parent then perched here and there on the brush pile, still calling, until finally the rat reappeared and began working slowly back the way it had come. Now the adult catbird actually dropped to the ground and hopped after the rat, sometimes only a foot or two behind, queuh-ing, and even held its ground when once the rat half turned and gazed at it for a second or more. Only when the rat had gone about 25 feet from the young bird did the parent's alarm subside; then it stopped calling and flew back to the fledgling."
Catbirds nesting in more remote situations along forest fringes are subject to prey by predaceous mammals and birds. P. L. Errington (1935) found that Midwest foxes include the catbird in their food.
W. J. Breckenridge (1935) in his ecological study of Minnesota marsh hawks found the catbird among other birds in the food eaten by these birds. A. H. Howell (1932) states that the duck hawk feeds on the catbird. Etta M. Morse (1923) found the remains of a catbird in the stomach of a long-eared owl that had molested a brood of catbirds she was observing near her home in Woonsocket, S. Dak. These representative records indicate that predaceous birds and mammals take their toll of catbirds.
There have been instances in which the catbird has been molested or evicted from their nests by other passerine birds. Mrs. George W. Trine (1935) states that the eggs of a catbird were destroyed by bronzed grackles. W. L. Burk (1938) relates a case of a catbird that built a nest and laid one egg. A brown thrasher removed the egg, appropriated the nest, and reared its brood. W. M. Orford (1929) writes that a pair of cardinals that appeared in a thicket containing a newly built nest of a pair of catbirds repeatedly chased the rightful owners away and took possession of the nest. The cardinals added new nesting material and apparently settled down to use the structure. When the nest was visited 2 days later it contained a single egg of the cowbird and was deserted.
Casualties.--H. B. Wood (1934) and others report catbirds being killed on the highways by speeding motor cars. H. F. Lewis (1927) reports that catbirds were killed by flying into various lighthouses during the time of migration. Several of the lighthouse keepers along the coast of Maine have told me that catbirds are frequent victims at their stations during the migratory flights. Robert Overing (1938), in reporting on the 1937 fall migration at the Washington Monument, mentions the catbird as being killed by flying into the structure. These instances lend support to the view that the catbird flies chiefly at night during its migration and spends the daytime resting and feeding in preparation of the next leg of its journey. Weather also proves to be a factor in the mortality of the species. A. T. Wayne (1899) writes that a large number of birds including the catbird perished during the great cold wave of February 13 -14, 1889. Mrs. G. W. Trine (1940) states that catbirds were killed by a terrific wind and hailstorm at Red Cloud, Nebr., on June 22, 1940.
Diseases and Parasites.--Bird banders who have trapped catbirds have found them subject to certain diseases. T. E. Musselman (1930), in his banding operations at Quincy, Ill., trapped a catbird that had both legs badly diseased up to the tarsal joints. He writes: "Heavy cellular proliferation resulting in grayish crusts and knots nearly doubled the size of the bird's legs. So burdensome were the incrustations that the bird could fly only with great effort and walking was practically an impossibility." H. A. Allard (1930) writes concerning a catbird with a deformed bill observed in his garden at Arlington, Va. The bill was deformed in such a way that the upper mandible did not close upon the lower in a normal manner. The bend of the upper mandible was somewhat past the middle toward the nares and formed an angle of about 45o with the plane of the lower mandible, exposing much of the inside of the mouth and tongue. He did not see it feed but the bird appeared well nourished and lively.
The majority of catbirds are infested by a few and some by many external parasites. H. S. Peters (1933, 1936) reports the catbird to be host to the louse Myrsidea incerta (Kell.) ; the two bird flies Ornithomyia avicularia (Linn.) and O. anchineuria Speiser; the two mites Liponyssus occidentalis Ewing and L. sylviarum (C. & F.), and the two ticks Haemaphysalis leporis-palustris Packard and Ixodes brunneus Koch.
The catbird is subject to parasitism by the cowbird. A. C. Bent has informed me of a catbird's nest that he found in an ash tree about 6 feet above the ground, in Nelson County, N. Dak., on June 14, 1901. The catbird was incubating four cowbird's eggs and one of its own. Mr. Bent states that the cowbird's eggs were of two different types, suggesting that they had been laid by two different individuals.
Dr. Herbert Friedmann (1929), the foremost authority on the cowbird, states that the catbird is an uncommon victim and that as far as he knows the cowbird has never been definitely reported to be successful with this bird. The few published records range from Maine, New York, and Pennsylvania to Indiana and North Dakota. Experiments were tried to see whether the catbird could distinguish her own eggs from the eggs of other species. In every case the foreign eggs were ejected by the catbird. Nuttall (1903) also states: "On placing an egg of this species [cowbird] in the Catbird's nest it was almost instantly ejected." It is obvious that the catbird is very intolerant of foreign eggs. "It is worthy of note," says Dr. Friedinann," that while the catbird seems to know enough to distinguish between its own and other eggs and to get rid of the unwelcome additions to its nest, if a leaf is laid lightly over the nest it does not seem to know enough to get rid of it but will sit on the leaf as though trying to incubate through it."
The eggs of the Nevada or sagebush cowbird (Molothrus ater artemesiae) as well as those of the eastern cowbird (Molothrus ater ater) have been found in nests of the catbird.
The yellow-billed cuckoo sometimes lays its eggs in the nests of other birds of which the catbird is a known victim. Nuttall (1903) in writing of the yellow-billed cuckoo stated: "Careless in providing comfort for her progeny, the American Cuckoo, like that of Europe seems at times inclined to throw the charge of her offspring on other birds. Approaching to this habit, I have found an egg of the Cuckoo in the nest of a Catbird; yet though the habitation was usurped, the intruder probably intended to hatch her own eggs." O. Widmann (1882) writes of a similar experience as follows: "I was not a little astonished to find last Saturday, June 4, 1881, an egg of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo in a Catbird's nest. The Catbird's nest contained only one egg of its rightful owner; another Catbird's egg was found broken on the ground. The Cuckoo's egg was fresh, but the Catbird's egg was incubated." Robert Dresser (Webster, 1892) took a catbird's nest on May 20, 1892, which contained four eggs of the catbird and one egg of the yellow-billed cuckoo.
H. Miller (1891) reports a most astonishing mixup in which a catbird's nest containing two eggs of the catbird and two eggs of the cowbird were incubated by a brown thrasher. There were no eggs of the thrasher.
Banding and Longevity.--Many catbirds have been banded, but with relatively few exceptions the hundreds of returns have been made at or near to the places where they were originally banded. Among some of the exceptions Lincoln (1939) reports a catbird banded at Schoharie, N. Y., on May 24, 1927, that flew into a house at Tela, Honduras, on October 25, 1929. Another catbird banded at Northville, S. Dak., on September 20, 1936, was killed at Tuxpam, Veracruz, Mexico, about January 1, 1937.
A number of longevity records of the catbird have been
reported. Miss Marion A. Boggs (1935) reports two catbirds banded
at her station at Waynesville, N. C., which were at least 7 years
old when last seen. One adult banded July 7, 1924, returned each
year until May 25, 1930. The other a female banded on July 2,
1926, also returned each year; the last date of trapping was April
22, 1932. A catbird banded at Demarest, N. J., on May 25, 1926,
was retrapped at the same place on
May 23, 1934, and again on May 8, 1935, a longevity record of 9 years (F. C. Lincoln, 1939).
That the above records may be unusual is emphasized by the work of Geoffrey Gill (1940), who has presented the analysis of returns of catbirds banded at his station at Huntington, Long Island, N. Y., over a 10-year period. Mr. Gill banded 1,134 catbirds of which 489 were adults, 579 immatures, and 66 fledglings. At the time of his report 99 individuals had made a total of 158 returns to his station. Of the 99 birds to return 63 were banded as adults, 35 as immatures, and only 1 as a fledgling. In regard to the longevity of the birds Mr. Gill writes as follows:
Of the 58 individuals returning which were banded previous to 1936, only 2 are known not to be less than 5 years old. Of 75 returning individuals banded previous to 1937, only 15 are known to have lived at least 4 years, while of 86 returning birds banded previous to 1938, 36 are known to be at least 3 years old.
Taking the age of the oldest banded bird recorded at this station and assuming that this age divided by two, would give the average life-span of a catbird, it would place the average at around 2 1/2 years. Such a theory is substantiated to a degree by banding records, but, due to the large element of chance in the trapping of wild birds, a large number must be banded and must return to the same traps before any conclusions can be drawn.
Winter.--There are so many winter records of the catbird that its occurrence in the North during the time of cold weather and snow does not seem unusual. Some of the individuals have been reported as being numbed or stupefied by extremely low temperature, but others seem to live successfully under the adverse conditions of a northern winter. Some of these records have been mentioned under the section pertaining to food and need not be repeated here.
The catbird is a common winter resident in the southern states, but many of them continue on to Central America as far south as Panama.
H. H. Kopman (1915) states that the catbird reaches southern Louisiana about September 10 and becomes abundant shortly after September 20. By the early part of November most of them have passed on. C. W. Beckham (1887) , writing of the catbird at its winter home in Louisiana, states that it is of retiring habits and exclusively a denizen of the woods and dense thickets and so few know of its presence.
William Brewster (1882b) states that in the South the local birds do not mix with the strangers. When seen the catbirds occur in flocks in the timber.
During January 1928 I saw two catbirds on a banana plantation
at Monte Verde, Costa Rica, and it gave me a real thrill to see
these friends so far from home. They seemed preoccupied in
searching for food as they worked through and about the vegetation
in the neighborhood of the plantation house. The catbirds were
seen for several days, but at no time did I hear them sing or even
utter a simple note. They seemed to keep aloof of the resident
birds of that tropical environment.
Gray Catbird* Dumetella carolinensis [Catbird]
*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1948. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 195: 320-351. United States Government Printing Office