Today, at dawn, I went out in the field to open my nets and heard the unique and exuberant R2D2-like song of the Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis). They were back from their southern winter vacations. As a banding intern in New England, I was anxious to handle colorful warblers and shy, subtle sparrows, yet the most abundant bird we banded was the Gray Catbird. When I began my bird studies here in the Midwest, I was inundated with them once again. I found this dull and unexciting at first, but have since grown to truly love and appreciate this species, and I look forward to their return each spring.
Catbirds have a lot of personality, making up for their fairly monochromatic appearance. Most species are quiet and docile while being banded, but catbirds tend to whine and complain. I vividly remember one hot day in late spring, back when our banding lab was located in an old barn. We had the barn doors wide open to catch a breeze. As one of my volunteers was banding a fussy, bitching catbird, another one flew in the door and landed on the back of the chair next to me. It cocked his head and assessed the situation with a bright eye. Seeing he was unable to assist his comrade in its “ordeal” of obtaining a silver bracelet, he gave his signature cat-like mew and flew back out the door.
Catbirds nest here, and many banded birds return year after year. I finally got a look at the legs of this singing bird, and sure enough, it was banded. Welcome back!