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posted: 7/14/2012 10:16 AM

For birders, the beauty's in the find not the flash

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  • Catbirds spend most of their time in dense thickets, but their weakness for grape jelly can draw them into the open.

      Catbirds spend most of their time in dense thickets, but their weakness for grape jelly can draw them into the open.
    Courtesy of Jeff Reiter

 
 

Remember that scene in "The Big Year" when Brad, played by Jack Black, is showing bird photos to his father? The two are scrolling through images on the back of a digital camera. When American golden plover comes up, Brad gets excited and says it's his favorite bird. The dad (Brian Dennehy) is not impressed. He says only two words: "It's gray."

True birders can appreciate that scene because we know it's not all about color and flash. Some of our favorite birds may appear rather plain, but they possess other qualities that make them appealing. Me, I've always liked the catbird. It's gray.

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My friends seem to like catbirds, too. They make funny sounds. The birds I mean. Plus, they are good looking without being colorful -- sleek and slate gray with a black crown. Catbirds also sport a rufous patch under their longish dark tail.

The patch can be hard to see, and so can the bird. Gray catbirds are common around here, but their favored habitat is dense vegetation and thickets, where they tend to stay low. We usually hear them before we see them, including their trademark "meow" call.

The catbird's secretive nature is just one reason I'm excited about my latest backyard birding story. Since early May, and for the first time ever, I've had a gray catbird visiting on daily basis. The trick: grape jelly.

I'd tried offering grape jelly before but without success. This time I got lucky. Or was it the feeder? Probably a little of both. The hanging blue plastic tray was an impulse buy at Menard's last winter, and so far it's a catbird magnet.

I suspect that a pair is visiting, and that the birds are raising a family in some overgrown shrubs across the street. But I haven't seen two birds at once so I can't be sure. Male and female catbirds look alike.

Visits to the jelly are always brief; catbirds are skittish about being in the open for very long. Yet they are not shy about making their presence known in the neighborhood. In May, well before daybreak, I often heard a catbird singing. Performing might be a better description.

Like mockingbirds and thrashers, the gray catbird belongs to the mimid family. Its song is quite musical but hard to describe -- loud and disjointed, often with notes or phrases borrowed from other species.

When I get home from work I can easily tell if the catbird has been pecking at the jelly. It leaves little beak marks. A tablespoon of the sweet stuff every couple days seems to be plenty.

One day the feeder was completely emptied. I'm guessing that was the work of house sparrows, which I've witnessed chowing down on the jelly occasionally. (The house sparrow population is huge in my yard these days; they are feathered vacuum cleaners.)

Cardinals, chickadees and nuthatches investigate the jelly but do not seem to like it. Orioles are known to feed on grape jelly but so far none has stopped by on my watch.

I did observe a fascinating interaction between a catbird and a ruby-throated hummingbird on June 2. From my "catbird seat" in the kitchen, I looked out to see the feisty little hummer driving the larger bird away from the nectar feeder, which is closer to the house.

The catbird retreated to the jelly feeder and the hummingbird followed it there, staying in the intruder's face. I believe Mr. Catbird got the message.

When the catbird show finally ends, I'll replace the grape jelly tray with a tube feeder filled with black-oil sunflower seeds, normally a staple on my avian buffet.

But how long will the catbird stay? All summer, hopefully. After that it will most likely migrate to the southern United States, eastern Mexico or Central America. A few catbirds, however, will spend the winter in the Chicago area; the species is found every year on various Christmas Bird Counts in the region. Like robins, catbirds can survive on berries when the snow flies. Maybe grape jelly, too.

For now, I'm content to enjoy the warm-weather company of a charismatic neighborhood guest -- a gray bird with a big voice and one serious sweet tooth.

• Jeff Reiter's column appears monthly in the Daily Herald. You can reach him via his blog, Words on Birds.

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