Larry Weber: Catbirds in the Northland
Each morning during June, we are treated to an elaborate and diverse avian chorus. The best time to hear the birds is in the very early morning hours -- before 8 a.m., while the winds are still calm. When breezes begin to pick up, hearing the bir...
Each morning during June, we are treated to an elaborate and diverse avian chorus. The best time to hear the birds is in the very early morning hours -- before 8 a.m., while the winds are still calm. When breezes begin to pick up, hearing the bird songs is a little harder, but any forenoon time will do. Woods, lake shores, swamps, fields and even our yards are the scene, and dozens of species will deliver their messages.
This is the month of breeding for most of the local songbirds. After returning during much of May, the mated pairs set up their home territories and begin families. These home sites are crucial for success. Here they need enough room for building the nest and getting food.
Since territories are so important, the songbirds are out each morning proclaiming ownership to others in the neighborhood. Most birds begin their songs early, but repeat several times during the day with an encore in the evening.
This is why June is chosen as the time to conduct a breeding bird survey, which I have done for the last 16 years. We drive a 25-mile route, stopping each one-half mile and recording every bird heard singing during a three-minute listen. When done each year, the data from these 50 stops can add much to the information of local birds.
This year, each stop was filled with songs. Vireos, warblers, flycatchers, blackbirds, sparrows and thrushes all announced their homes.
One did so with a long song made up of many phrases. The catbird was heard is about one-fourth of the stops. This gray bird of about 8 inches long is a nester in shrubs and bushes that grow along the edges of woods, yards, swamps and roads. I also hear them regularly at my home.
These birds belong to a family frequently called "mimic thrushes." The name refers to the varying and diverse series of calls they sing. The catbird is our most common member of this group, but maybe not the best known. Two other clan members are the brown thrasher and mockingbird. Brown thrashers are an uncommon resident of the Northland while mockingbirds live farther south. Both are state birds. Brown thrasher is the state bird of Georgia while the well-loved mockingbird claims five states as its own: Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Texas.
Singing a complicated number of phrases is impressive, but catbirds get their name from a call they make. When disturbed, the birds give a "meow" type of sound. Though diagnostic and a great way to identify this gray bird, the call is more of an alarm note than a song.
The catbird is another example of a bird that is easy to hear, but hard to see when in the plants.
Their nests are constructed of twigs in shrubs and trees, usually less than 10 feet above the ground. Here they proceed to raise a couple of young which will fledge in July.
For now, in June, it is the singing adult catbirds that we hear. With some searching, we may even see them during this month of bird songs.
Larry Weber is author of several books that are available now. He lives in Carlton County.