Male gray catbird gives a cat’s meow

I spied a gray catbird the other day at our suet feeder in Decatur, the first one I’ve seen in our yard this year.

It probably has been nesting in the thick hedge in my yard all spring, but the catbird is one of those common creatures that may live in a yard all season long without being noticed.

That’s mostly because of its secretive nature and preference for dense thickets and shrubbery. Also, except for its reddish undertail and black “cap” on its head, the catbird’s overall slate gray plumage tends to make it inconspicuous. Most people, in fact, probably mistake a catbird for its close cousin the mockingbird, which it resembles.

Like the mockingbird, the gray catbird is a versatile songster and an able mimic, whose songs — hurried, musical outbursts that may last more than a minute — often contain a few notes of other birds. The songs consist mostly of a series of trills, warbles, chirps and whistles, which, to me, resemble the sounds of R2-D2, the lovable Star Wars droid.

But what gives the bird its name is its alarm call. Some folks say it sounds like the mewing — or meow — of a cat, although I find it hard to mistake the sound for that of an actual cat.

Indisputable, though, is the male catbird’s fierce defense of its nest while the female incubates the eggs. The males of many other songbird species also guard their nests, but the catbird is especially vigilant.

It is one of only a dozen species of birds known to recognize brown-headed cowbird eggs and eject them from its nest. The cowbird is called a parasite because it lays its eggs in other birds’ nests and leaves it up to the foster parents to hatch and raise the baby cowbirds, usually at the peril of the foster parents’ own babies.

In Georgia, catbirds raise two to three broods per season in bulky cup nests loosely made of twigs, leaves and grass. Come fall, most of our catbirds will migrate to the southern tropics, although a few may overwinter in South Georgia.

IN THE SKY: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Center astronomer: The moon will be first quarter on Sunday. Mercury is low in the east just before sunrise. Mars is in the south, Jupiter is low in the southwest (and will appear near the moon tonight), and Saturn is in the east around nightfall.