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The catbird nest outside our window

Guest post from writer and photographer judywhite

Gray Catbird at the nest with young (J047691). Image ©
Two years ago we had a Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) nest in a juniper outside our bedroom window here in northeastern Pennsylvania and we had a decent view of the nesting process, much to the chagrin of the mother catbird. This year, trying to outwit us, she built a nest on the other side of the house entirely, in a ninebark shrub, Physocarpus opulifolius Coppertina (‘Mindia’). This nest was even closer to a window, about three feet (c1m) away. I only discovered it because I was cutting back the shrub in July and saw the nest just in time, leaving it still covered, but conveniently if inadvertently exposed on the window side, providing an excellent view. [BTW For Brits: the Grey Catbird's closest British relatives are thrushes and starlings.]

Catbirds make a squawking meowing noise when they are annoyed; hence their name. We’ve heard it a lot lately. It’s about the most recognizable birdcall. Catbirds are also songbirds, related to the Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), cobbling together interesting sounds that can include frog noises and whistles. (Listen to the “Mew” as well as song samples on the excellent Cornell Lab of Ornithology site.)

The catbird is a medium sized (9in/22cm) gray nun of a bird, with a demure black cap, but hides a surprising rusty orange petticoat under its long tail. A perky creature despite the somber appearance, it loves the birdbath, taking long splashes in evident enjoyment. The catbird also stays out long after most other birds have retired for the evening. They’re pretty common here.

CNewly hatched Gray Catbird chick and egg (J047288). Image ©GardenPhotos.comOur catbird female built the twiggy nest about 4ft (1.2m) off the ground and laid three gorgeous teal-blue eggs in mid-July. This was her second brood of the year. She sat on them for 12 days, when the first one hatched; the other two followed within 24 hours. The male helps feed the babies, and we sometimes saw him also feed the mother as she sat - which she often had to do in the rain looking miserable.

What’s amazing is how fast baby catbirds grow. In 12 days, they went from vulnerable pink blobs to adult-sized and full-feathered. Today the first one fledged; the others should follow today and tomorrow, a succession that allows the parents time to worry about just one floundering around in the treetops while still feeding nestlings. The nest size, which seemed cavernous with three eggs, was full to bursting by the time the young were big enough to leave.

So we got some decent photos by cracking open the window, fixing the tripod inside and the Nikon D200 & Nikkor 105mm macro lens outside, using a long remote shutter cord. I lay out of sight on the floor so as not to alarm them, waiting to hear the babies peeping in anticipation when a parent was there with food – then I clicked button on the remote.

Catbirds migrate to southeastern US states for winter, as far as Central America, leaving in September/October. I guess ours will be back as usual next May, trying to find yet another shrubby thicket of peace and quiet.

Gray Catbird babies demanding food (J047769). Image ©


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Olga van Saane

Oh this is wonderful, Graham! We have many birds in the garden here, in the middle of nature, but - a nest, and so close, and a chance to take a shoot, and pictures turn up so well...! :) Great, great post.

Graham Rice

Thank you, Olga, I'm so glad that you like judy's post. We've also had two broods of phoebes from a nest about three feet from the front door (but high up and more difficult to photograph).

And thanks also to Barbara for the email.

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