The Hampton Court Flower Show
Ageing disgracefully

Catbirds outside our window

While I was at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, my wife judy sent over this guest post on the Gray Catbirds in our Pennsylvania garden. Thanks judy.

Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) on her nest. Image © (all rights reserved)
We see Gray Catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) here at the lake as regular summer residents, but this is the first time a pair built a nest outside our bedroom window. It’s comprised mostly of twigs, located about 6ft/1.8m off the ground, near the top of evergreen shrubbery but still hidden, and while only 4ft/1.2m from our window, absurdly hard to photograph because of the shrubs and the difficulty in getting our casement windows open wide enough. It has been wonderful, however, as a vantage point thru the nesting process.

Catbirds are so named because of the meowing sound they can make, but are actually songbirds and also good mimics of other birds and sounds, in the same category as mockingbirds. We’re pretty sure ours are also making the odd squeaking noise that sounds like someone’s reeling in a clothesline. The genus name, Dumetella, means “small thicket” - where they build their nests.

Our pair began building on June 8, and a few days later the female began incubating, but almost immediately crows forced her off the nest and took the single egg. We figured the catbirds would abandon, but less than 2 days later, on June 13, she began sitting again. Four more eggs had been laid, a beautiful, deep turquoise green-blue, much richer than an American robin’s egg color.

Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) with babies. Image © (all rights reserved)
The female rarely left the nest during incubation (typically 12-14 days, during which it rained on her a lot, kind of like watching Dr. Seuss’s elephant Horton Hatches An Egg). The male sometimes hovered around. Between June 26-27th, three babies hatched, tiny, naked and vulnerable. Both parents, sometimes both at the nest at once, began feeding them insects – I saw one catch a huge moth in the air, bring it to the nest and shove it down a bright yellow-gold throat. The female stayed on the nest a lot the first few days, but after that, she spends perhaps 20% of her waking time there. Oddly, when she leaves, the male often sticks around and acts worried, tittering and flashing open his tail and wings in short bursts, but it’s like it would never occur to him to actually get on the nest until she gets back.

Catbirds are unusual in that they are versatile eaters; insects, berries, fruit, even coming to the suet feeder, and occasionally awkwardly eating the big sunflower seeds. What I see being given the nestlings, however, was almost entirely insect until about a week old, when Amelanchier berries became a good part of the mix. I’ve been putting out strawberries and grapes, which the parents eat. Even more than the birdfood, though, they love the birdbath; sometimes both parents are in there at once, splashing around in what seems to be great delight. They also stay out til quite late at night, well after all other birds have disappeared.

Catbird fledgling. Image © (all rights reserved)
The babies grow incredibly fast; hour-by-hour they zoom in size. And today, June 7th, 10-11 days from hatching, I looked out the window early this morning to discover everyone was gone. The nestlings have all fledged, leaving this nest. Catbirds often have two broods a year, so we’ll see if they use this small thicket again, especially after having to endure human faces peering at them so often.

For a relatively shy species, they’ve been amazingly tolerant. I already miss them.


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