Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by  Anna Botsford Comstock


Catbird on nest.

Photo by Robert Matheson.

The Catbird

Teacher's Story

"The Catbird sings a crooked song, in minors that are flat,

And, when he can't control his voice he mews just like a cat,

Then nods his head and whisks his tail and lets it go at that."

—Oliver Davie.

AS a performer, the catbird distinctly belongs to the vaudeville, even going so far as to appear in slate-colored tights. His specialties range from the most exquisite song to the most strident of scolding notes; his nasal "n-y-a-a-h, n-y-a-a-h" is not so very much like the cat's mew after all, but when addressed to the intruder it means "get out;" and not in the whole gamut of bird notes is there another which so quickly inspires the listener with this desire. I once trespassed upon the territory of a well-grown catbird family and the squalling that ensued was ear-splitting; as I retreated, the triumphant youngsters followed me for a few rods with every sign of triumph in their actions and voices; they obviously enjoyed my apparent fright. The catbirds have rather a pleasant "cluck, cluck" when talking to each other, hidden in the bushes, and they also have a variety of other notes. The true song of the catbird, usually given in the early morning, is very beautiful. Mr. Mathews thinks it is a medley gathered from other birds, but it seems to me very individual. However, true to his vaudeville training, this bird is likely to introduce into the middle or at the end of his exquisite song some phrase that suggests his cat call. He is, without doubt, a true mocker and will often imitate the robin's song, and also if opportunity offers learns to converse fluently in chicken language. One spring morning, I heard outside my window the mellow song of the cardinal, which is a rare visitor in New York, but there was no mistaking the "tor-re-do, tor-re-do." I sprang from my bed and rushed to the window only to see a catbird singing the cardinal song, and thus telling me that he had come from the sunny South and the happy companionship of these brilliant birds. Often when the catbird is singing, he sits on the topmost spray of some shrub lifting his head and depressing his tail, like a brown thrasher; and again, he sings completely hidden in the thicket.

In appearance the catbird is tailor-made, belonging to the same social class as the cedar-bird and the barn swallow. However, it affects quiet colors, and its well-fitting costume is all slate-gray except the top of the head and the tail which are black; the feathers beneath the base of the tail are brownish. The catbird is not so large as the robin, and is of very different shape; it is far more slender and has a long, emotional tail. The way the catbird twitches and tilts its tail, as it hops along the ground or alights in a bush, is very characteristic. It is a particularly alert and nervous bird, always on the watch for intruders, and the first to give warning to all other birds of their approach. It is a good fighter in defending its nest, and there are several observed instances where it has fought to defend the nest of other species of birds; and it has gone even further in its philanthropy, by feeding their orphaned nestlings.

The catbird chooses a nesting site in a low tree or shrub or brier, where the nest is built usually about four feet from the ground. The nest looks untidy, but is strongly made of sticks, coarse grass, weeds, bark strips and occasionally paper; it is lined with soft roots and is almost always well hidden in dense foliage. The eggs are from three to five in number and are dark greenish blue. Both parents work hard feeding the young and for this purpose destroy many insects which we can well spare. Sixty-two per cent of the food of the young has been found in one instance to be cutworms, showing what a splendid work the parents do in our gardens. In fact, during a large part of the summer, while these birds are rearing their two broods, they benefit us greatly by destroying the insect pests; and although later they may attack our fruits and berries, it almost seems as if they had earned the right to their share. If we only had the wisdom to plant along the fences some elderberries or Russian mulberries, the catbirds as well as the robins would feed upon them instead of the cultivated fruits.

The catbirds afford a striking example for impressing upon children that each species of birds haunts certain kinds of places. The catbirds are never found in deep woods nor in open fields, but always near low thickets along streams, and in shrubbery along fences, in tangles of vines, and especially do they like to build about our gardens, if we protect them. They are very fond of bathing, and if fresh water is given them for this purpose, we may have opportunity to witness the most thorough bath a bird can take. A catbird takes a long time to bathe and preen its feathers and indulges in most luxurious sun baths and thus deservedly earns the epithet of "well-groomed;" it is one of the most intelligent of all our birds and soon learns "what is what," and repays in the most surprising way the trouble of careful observation.

Lesson XXIII

The Catbird

Leading thought—The catbird has a beautiful song as well as the harsh "miou," and can imitate other birds, although not so well as the mockingbird. It builds in low thickets and shrubbery and during the nesting season is of great benefit to our gardens.

Methods—First, let the pupils study and report upon the songs, scoldings and other notes of this our northern mockingbird; then let them describe its appearance and habits. Of course, the study must be made outside of school hours in the field.


1. Do you think the squall of the catbird sounds like the mew of a cat? When does the bird use this note and what for? What other notes have you heard it utter?

2. Describe as well as you can the catbird's true song. Are there any harsh notes in it? Where does he sit while singing? Describe his actions while singing.

3. Have you ever heard the catbird imitate the songs of other birds or other noises?

4. Describe the catbird as follows: its size and shape compared to the robin; the color and shape of head, beak, wings, tail, breast and under parts.

5. Describe its peculiar actions and its characteristic movements.

6. Where do catbirds build their nests? How high from the ground? What material is used? Is the nest compact and carefully finished? Is it hidden?

7. What is the color of the eggs? Do both parents care for the young?

8. What is the food of the catbird? Why is it an advantage to us to have catbirds build in our gardens?

9. Do you ever find catbirds in the deep woods or out in the open meadows? Where do you find them?

10. Put out a pan of water where the catbirds can use it and then watch them make their toilets and describe the process. Describe how they take sun baths.

Supplementary reading—"Monsieur Mischief," Nestlings of Forest and Marsh, Wheelock; Our Birds and Their Nestlings, Walker, pp. 167, 174; Second Book of Birds, Miller, p. 37; Songs of Nature, Burroughs, p. 172; Birds of Song and Story, Grinnell, p. 36.

"He sits on a branch of yon blossoming bush,

This madcap cousin of robin and thrush,

And sings without ceasing the whole morning long;

Now wild, now tender, the wayward song

That flows from his soft, gray, fluttering throat;

But often he stops in his sweetest note,

And, shaking a flower from the blossoming bough,

Drawls out, "Mi-eu, mi-ow!"

—"The Catbird," Edith M. Thomas

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