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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  1. Dave Hoag says:

    Gray catbirds may not be found year-round in Cape May, but they’re certainly here in abundance in Southeast Pennsylvania all year. In summer, I sometimes see them eating spotted lanternflies as well as other insects. They also occasionally peck my ripening tomatoes. In the frost and snow season, they eat out of my bird feeder. Cornell’s map shows them as non-migratory on the Eastern Seaboard.

  2. Christopher Fitch says:

    Grey catbird’s singing ability outstanding. Many reviews of his song use words like”discordant “ or “ not melodic” My humble opinion is that he has a ton of talent and nobody in New England works harder,singing right through hot early July mornings long after most other songsters break off until late afternoon. It’s mostly over by the second half of July, but a few birds keep it up till August 1st.

  3. Richard Hook says:

    We live in Ocean County, NJ and have made our fairly large backyard welcoming to both resident and migratory birds. Several catbirds arrive in early spring and each year there is a nest in a forsythia
    “thicket” . We didn’t realize that they lived as long as they do and that it may be the same birds year after year. Is it possible that they get to know us and therefor seem to be more and more comfortable being
    very close to us when we are outdoors?

  4. Diane Rea says:

    Great article now we know what type of bird this is in our neighborhood we so enjoyed this article very informative ??

  5. Janine Finnell says:

    Thank you, Joe, for this excellent and informative article. I just saw our first catbirds of the season today (May 3, 2022) in Arlington, VA. One visited our bird feeder with a gourmet mix of nuts and sunflower kernels. I had never seen them before at our feeder and came across your article to learn more. We have been enjoying them for many years as they return to our location here in the Mid-Atlantic year after year.

  6. Becky Pezzoni says:

    My house is under attack by a very aggressive catbird! he goes from window to window, I suppose attacking his reflection. It’s been like a bad Hitchcock movie for a week now, and I’ve tried the fake owl, covering the glass with brown paper (neither of which has worked, And, I’ve had to park my car outside the past couple of days so he’s after that darn reflection in the side mirror and windshield!! Argghh!!! make him stop! bird poop everywhere! I guess I need to hire a CAT! 😉

  7. Diane DiNola says:

    Hi Joe, I enjoyed reading your tribute to catbirds. That being said, I am in the outskirts of Phoenix, AZ and dealing with a pair of mating catbirds that have nested in my orange tree in the area that my dog uses to potty. I’m sure you can guess that now my dog doesn’t even want to go outside as she gets dive-bombed every time, as do I when I try to go with her. As a bird lover I really don’t want to disturb the birds, but my dog needs to be able to do her thing and I’m unable to walk her. Is there anything I can do to achieve a symbiotic relationship ?

  8. Mary Williams says:

    The Catbirds , which appeared to be two pairs, suddenly disappeared after a torrential rain event about a months ago. We are in Kent Connecticut, northwest corner of the state. Was it coincidental, that maybe they migrated then? The Phoebe pair also disappeared at the same time.

  9. Gael Ulrich says:

    My bird comes when I work in the yard and kind of follows me around–especially when I disturb soil. Seems to be a repeat from last year and comes quite near me without fear.

  10. Cynthia & Bill Trafidlo says:

    Interesting information about Catbirds! I had no idea that they migrate to and from tropical climes like Hummingbirds. However, I came to your site looking for answers as to why these birds are drinking the food we put out for our Hummingbirds… I gather from your raisin notes, that it must be the sugary potion the Catbirds like. They have a “sweet tooth” so to speak!
    Unfortunately, they are keeping the Hummers from returning to their feeders.

    Is there some way to keep the Catbirds away from the Hummingbird feeders?