Species Dossiers

By Carl Strang


Some years ago it occurred to me to wonder, what do I know about wildlife from my own experience rather than from my reading, from TV, or other sources? I began creating dossiers on vertebrate species that included only my own experience-based knowledge. I was appalled at how little there was, even for familiar common species. It prompted me to pay more attention, expanding the dossiers as my observations allowed. These dossiers will be a significant source for future postings. I encourage people generally to make a distinction between what they know from their own experience and what they know second hand.


Gray catbird

Gray catbird




For now I will provide an example, for the gray catbird. Looking at its dossier I see that I have failed to note some things I have observed in recent years. For instance, catbirds are in the Mimidae, a family of birds famous for their imitations of other birds’ songs. One of them, the mockingbird, has very good fidelity in its mimicries. Catbirds, with interesting rare exceptions, perform their mimicries with such a strong catbird accent that identifying the model can be a challenge. I have had a number of enjoyable occasions of trying to identify the songs of other birds in catbirds’ performances. I want to make a list of species I have heard catbirds imitating. Robin, cardinal, goldfinch and yellow-throated vireo come to mind from memory.


OK, so here’s the dossier:


Catbird, Gray

A familiar species on Winfield Street in Culver in childhood. Nested in dense bushes, 4-6 feet up. Also frequently encountered in old field areas in PA and DuPage Co. Tends to stay within thick vegetation and on ground except when singing. Slinky, sneaky movement through brush. Generally 2-4 pairs on Willowbrook Forest Preserve’s [then] 43 acres.

Song consists of a variety of multisyllabic phrases, evenly spaced, with squeaky harmonics in tonal quality. Occasional “meow” notes, very catlike, thrown in. “Meow” sometimes used by itself, I suspect as an alarm. Another alarm, “bwert” with slight “bwoit” tendency.

9JE86. A catbird ran/hopped and paused, robin-like, down sidewalk at Willowbrook before grabbing an invertebrate at the edge.

Still present on territory and rarely singing at Herrick Lake in mid-September 1986. Cat calls heard most frequently, used as a contact call as well as for mobbing/warning. The “bwert” call also used.

Present, singing by 4MY87.

Migrants heard or seen in 1987, Willowbrook: September 10, 13, 14, 15, 23, 25, 28.

13MY88. Catbird using “meow” call as a contact call. The one near me replies, and answers as it forages in shrub. The distant one is out of my sight, almost certainly too far away to be responding directly to my presence.

2SE88. A few still around, Willowbrook. A couple on 13SE, 27SE, 3OC.

30JE90. “Put, put” alarm call resembles Swainson’s Thrush’s in tonal quality.

23JL90. A catbird hopped while on open ground.

3MY99. First of season noted at Willowbrook.  

15SE99. Catbird has a loud, blackbird-like, abrupt sputtering call, “sp-tack!” I’ve been hearing it through the migration season.

12OC99. Last catbird of the season at Willowbrook.

5MY00. First catbirds arrived at Willowbrook yesterday. Today one was eating smooth sumac berries.

17JE00. Arboretum, Joy Path. A catbird sang all morning, or at least every time I was nearby from about 8am to 12 noon, and except for the last part of that period was on the same perch on an exposed dead branch high in a cottonwood, overlooking an area with a lot of ornamental shrubs.

24SE00. Migrating catbirds still abundant.

17SE01. A catbird sang briefly, at Willowbrook.

14SE02. A catbird eating black cherries at Elsen’s Hill.

12OC02. A late bird calling, Fermilab.

22SE08. An unusual group of 11 catbirds together in a low wooded area at Fullersburg.

Unusual catbird conclave, Fullersburg, 22 September 2008

Unusual catbird conclave, Fullersburg, 22 September 2008




  1. March 11, 2009 at 11:07 am

    […] relatives including mynahs, which also are renowned mimics.  Our own native mimics include the catbird, whose heavily accented imitations I enjoy trying to decode, and blue jays, whose copycat […]

  2. April 9, 2009 at 11:00 am

    […] chipmunks began to show themselves at Mayslake in the second half of March. Today I’m sharing my dossier  on the species. The codes are my representations of dates, the day followed by my month code, […]

  3. April 29, 2009 at 2:49 am

    […] post is another in my series of species dossiers. It begins with the summary paragraph written when I established the dossier in late 1986 or early […]

  4. May 8, 2009 at 11:05 am

    […] me to think there was some kind of displaying or patrolling taking place. Looking back at my brief dossier  on the species, I see that I have observed this behavior […]

  5. May 11, 2010 at 6:01 am

    […] past posts on starlings and catbirds I have described well known song mimics. These are birds that include imitations of other birds’ […]

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