Consider the Catbird: The Surprising Secrets of a Common Backyard Bird

Take a look outside and you may well see a gray catbird. But this common backyard bird is full of surprises.

Consider the gray catbird: the tropical long-distance migrant that may well be nesting in your backyard this summer.

Gray catbirds are common, so you may not pay them much attention. But look into the research, and you’ll find that this backyard bird is full of surprises. Let’s take a closer look.

As I write this, a gray catbird is singing in my backyard.

It arrived here in New Jersey several weeks ago and may already be building a nest with its mate somewhere in the neighborhood.

I am wondering where my catbird spent its winter – and whether this is the very same catbird that was in my yard last summer. Research on catbirds can help answer these questions.

Every spring, dozens of species of migrant songbirds make their way north from the tropics to settle into nesting habitats across North America. Indeed, half of all North American birds spend their winters south of the U.S. border – from Mexico through South America.

Most of these species are habitat specialists and we might see them in our backyards only briefly during migration as they make their way to more remote places.

A Prothonotary Warbler pausing briefly during spring migration. © K Pennington/TNC Photo Contest 2019

The gray catbird, on the other hand, is a migrant from the tropics that is quite happy to claim a breeding territory in a wide variety of shrubby habitats, including suburban backyards.

The catbird singing in your backyard this spring is likely the same one that was there last year. Individual catbirds (and numerous other species) return to the same habitat patch to nest year after year, as long as they are fortunate enough to survive from one season to the next. Studies have shown a roughly 60 percent annual survival rate for catbirds.

If your backyard catbird has a lucky streak, you could see the same bird coming back for many seasons. The longevity record for a catbird is 17 years, 11 months.

This nearly 18-year-old bird was caught and banded as a young of the year in Maryland and miraculously encountered again by banders those many years later in New Jersey.

Banding can confirm the age of birds and also confirm that the bird in your backyard this year is the same one that was there last year.

Participants in programs like Neighborhood Nestwatch can observe their backyard catbirds wearing unique combinations of colored leg bands. These identify each bird as an individual and can be viewed with binoculars. For this project, researchers and participants alike can make observations on the identity and longevity of their catbirds.

Catbirds nest in 46 of the lower 48 United States and across southern Canada. They spend the winter across an equally broad area. A proportion stay in the U.S., where they primarily occupy the Gulf Coast and Florida. Some hearty individuals hang in there as far north as New Jersey.

A grey catbird calling. © Fyn Kynd / Flickr

Others go further south to the tropics – to the forests of Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America.  There, they share the woods with jaguar, tapir, fer-de-lance and toucans.

Catbirds return to the same site on the wintering grounds every year as well. Your backyard catbird might spend the winter in the shadow of Mayan ruins in Guatemala or perhaps in the Florida Everglades.

The combination of USGS Bird Banding Laboratory mark-recapture data and the breeding (blue), year-round (green) and wintering (orange) distributions of gray catbirds provide a range-wide perspective of migratory connectivity.
The combination of USGS Bird Banding Laboratory mark-recapture data and the breeding (blue), year-round (green) and wintering (orange) distributions of gray catbirds provide a range-wide perspective of migratory connectivity (Ryder 2011).

We can make an educated guess on where your backyard catbirds spend the winter thanks to a recent analysis of banding records along with the use of tracking devices.

What this work tells us is that if a catbird breeds in the upper Midwest, it is more likely to be spending the winter in Central America. If it nests in the mid-Atlantic and New England, your catbird is likely spending the winter in Florida or the Caribbean.

As more studies like this one are carried out, we will have a further refined picture of “migratory connectivity” between nesting and winter sites. And we will be able to make even better guesses about where our backyard catbird might be next winter.

“A Few Raisins Give Him the Greatest Delight”             

If you want to kick things up a notch for your backyard catbirds this summer, in addition to providing water, you can also offer them fruit.

As the poet Mary Oliver observes in her poem “Catbird”: “But a few raisins give him the greatest delight.”

One of the pleasures of a birding holiday in the tropics is watching birds at fruit feeders. After hours of seeking difficult-to-see skulking birds of the undergrowth and fast-flitting birds of the high tree tops, birding respite can be found at lodges and cafes that maintain fruit feeders for birds. Dozens of species of brightly colored birds come into easy view to eat banana, papaya and citrus at close range.

Catbirds bring a bit of this culture back with them from the tropics and are among the few birds at our northern latitudes that will readily eat soaked raisins, sliced orange and even grape jelly.

Back to my well-fed catbird. Is he the same bird as last year? Without banding him, I can’t know for sure. But I do know that he will do everything within his power to return here.

Cuba’s Zapata Swamp. © Marjon Melissen / Flickr

And return from where?

Maybe it is time to combine science with imagination. The science tells me that he wintered somewhere in Florida or the Caribbean.

But for better spatial resolution, my imagination is saying the Zapata Swamp of Cuba. Listen to what he sounds like there (in the audio file) … and then listen for the catbird in your yard!

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