Catbird vs Mockingbird: How to Tell Which is Which

If you’re a bird enthusiast, you might have come across the catbird and the mockingbird, two captivating songbirds that might appear quite similar at first glance.

Both of these species belong to the family Mimidae and can be found throughout most of North America. Their gray feathers and similar diets might make you wonder about the distinctions between these two delightful birds.

However, there are several physical and behavioral differences that set them apart, as we’ll diving into now.

Key Takeaways:

  • There are certain key visual differences between catbirds and mockingbirds that make them easier to identify.
  • Primary physical differences lie in eye color, belly color, tails, wings, and head markings.
  • Unique behaviors, vocalizations, and habitats further distinguish between these two songbirds.

Catbird vs Mockingbird: Overview

There are, in fact, many differences between catbirds and mockingbirds, some of which are more subtle than others.

Here’s a quick visual overview of the main differences between catbirds and mockingbirds:

catbird vs mockingbird comprison

Catbird and Mockingbird Physical Differences

Catbirds and mockingbirds are similarly shaped birds with gray feathers, making it easy to mix them up with each other from a bit of a distance.

Get closer, however, and you’ll see a number of distinguishing physical characteristics that can reliably tell you which one you’re looking at.

Let’s go over them now.

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If you’re not sure if it’s a mockingbird or a catbird, one of the best places to look is the eyes.

If you see the catbird up close, you’ll notice its eyes will look completely black. But look at the eye of a mockingbird, and you’ll see a black pupil surrounded by a yellowish or deep amber-color.

The difference is clear and a pretty easy way to tell these birds apart.

Head Markings

Another physical difference to note is the unique black cap found on the head of gray catbirds.

This feature is absent in mockingbirds, which, combined with their grayish color, gives them a more uniform appearance.


catbird vs mockingbird physical differences

Looking at their wings, you can observe that mockingbirds have white wing bars, while catbirds lack any such distinctive markings.

These wing patches become particularly noticeable when mockingbirds take flight or display their wings in an open position.


Paying close attention to their tail feathers can offer more clues.

Gray catbirds have reddish-brown undertail coverts, but mockingbirds’ are whitish. Depending on how the bird is sitting, however, this area may be more or less visible.

In addition to this, mockingbirds have a distinguishing feature in the form of their long tail feathers. Comparatively, catbirds have shorter tail feathers, which results in a distinctive profile when they’re perched or in flight.


There is a subtle difference in the gray shades of the mockingbird and catbird.

While a catbird gives the impression of being a rather uniform gray color all over its body (with the exception of its black cap), a mockingbird has more variation.

Mockingbirds have a more whitish coloration on their undersides, as opposed to the grayer color on top.


In terms of size, gray catbirds are slightly smaller than mockingbirds.

A gray catbird typically has a body length of around 9 inches, while a mockingbird’s body length ranges from 8.1 to 11 inches.

Although, it might be challenging to differentiate them by size alone.

It’s much easier to tell them apart by their other physical features, namely the catbird’s black cap, the mockingbird’s yellowish eyes, and mockingbird’s wing patches.

Mockingbird vs Catbird Behavioral Differences

Gray Catbird surveying its surroundings
Gray Catbird surveying its surroundings

When it comes to distinguishing between a catbird and a mockingbird, their behaviors, particularly their vocalizations and singing habits, offer key insights.


As a bird watcher, you might have noticed that both birds are known for their mimicry abilities, but there is more to their unique behaviors.

Catbirds are songbirds with a distinct raspy voice. Their vocalizations consist of a variety of phrases, often called “meowing” as it sounds similar to a cat.

They don’t usually mimic other birds’ songs, but rather create their own unique vocal patterns.

During mating season, the male catbird will sing a mix of songs to attract a mate, while the female may also sing, though less frequently.

Mockingbirds, on the other hand, are masters of imitation. They are famous for their ability to mimic a wide range of other bird songs, as well as non-bird sounds such as car alarms and even cellphone ringtones.

Their vast repertoire allows them to switch between different vocalizations, making them highly entertaining to listen to.

While singing, a mockingbird tends to repeat each phrase multiple times before moving on to the next one, whereas a catbird sings each phrase only once.


Northern Mockingbird drinking water
Northern Mockingbird drinking water

Besides their singing habits, the way these birds interact with their environment also reflects their unique characteristics.

Catbirds are typically shy creatures who prefer to stay hidden in dense foliage.

They can be more difficult to spot than mockingbirds, who might appear bolder and more conspicuous by comparison.

However, catbirds are not non-aggressive—they will destroy neighboring birds’ eggs and nestlings when they have the opportunity.

Mockingbirds have a reputation for being territorial and may sometimes exhibit aggressive behaviors towards other birds or even humans that come too close to their nests.


In terms of where catbirds and mockingbirds live, you’ll find that they prefer different regions across North America, which can help you identify them.

Catbirds are mainly in the eastern U. S., with their distribution not extending far into Canada.

Catbirds undertake long migratory journeys during the breeding season, often crossing large distances in search of suitable nesting grounds. In the winter, they travel down along the Gulf Coast, all the way toward the Caribbean.

On the other hand, mockingbirds have a more extensive range in almost all 50 states, from the east to the west coast.

But northern mockingbirds are only partially migratory, depending on factors such as climate and local resource abundance. Many do not migrate at all, establishing territories and nesting year-round in the same location.

Habitat Differences

Gray Catbird hiding in vegetation
Gray Catbird hiding in vegetation

Both bird species like low vegetation growth, though mockingbirds like their spaces more open than catbirds.

Catbirds favor the edges of wooded areas, gardens, and brushy fields. You may spot them in parks or suburban backyards where shrubbery and thickets are available for them to take cover.

Interestingly, catbirds won’t venture into unbroken forests or coniferous woods.

You can find mockingbirds in a variety of habitats, from woodland areas to grasslands, though they favor open areas with a lower density of vegetation and shorter grass.

Since mockingbirds can adapt to different environments, they’re common in urban and suburban settings, including thickets, farmlands, and residential lawns.

They also have higher concentrations in warmer climates, particularly near Florida and Texas.

Catbird and Mockingbird Vocalizations

As a songbird lover, you’re probably wondering about the differences between the songs and calls of catbirds and mockingbirds.

Both gray catbirds and northern mockingbirds are part of the Mimidae family, so they share some characteristics.

Let’s dive into their unique vocalizations.

Differences in Songs

Northern Mockingbird calling from a branch
Northern Mockingbird calling from a branch

When it comes to catbird songs, you may hear a drawn-out, yet halting series of short notes. Put together, they sound like a collection of phrases.

A single song can last for several minutes, displaying an impressive array of sounds such as squeaks, whistles, gurgles, and nasally tones.

Their tunes often imitate the calls of other birds, frogs, and even mechanical sounds.

On the other hand, northern mockingbirds have a creative and versatile repertoire.

They are known for their skilled mimicry, adopting and remixing songs from other birds, and even borrowing sounds from other animals and inanimate objects.

A mockingbird’s song is a series of phrases, each repeated several times before switching to the next one.

Differences in Calls

As for catbirds’ calls, they use a distinct mewing call as their primary vocalization, which is quite different from the musical nature of their songs.

This mewing call serves as an identifier for the species and helps you locate them when they are hiding in dense foliage.

Catbird sounds usually include sharp clicks, rasps, clucks, soft whistles, and trills, making their songs an interesting mix of varied notes.

In comparison, the calls of mockingbirds are louder and more attention-grabbing.

Their sharp and distinct calls separate them from other songbirds, making it easier for you to identify a mockingbird perched high on a branch or performing an aerial display.

Diet and Feeding

Northern Mockingbird eating an orange
Northern Mockingbird eating an orange

Catbird and Mockingbird Diets

Both catbirds and mockingbirds share some similarities in dietary preferences.

They’re primarily insectivores, meaning they love to snack on insects such as beetles, ants, and caterpillars. You’ll often find them foraging for insects on trees, shrubs, and the ground.

Apart from insects, both species enjoy a more diversified diet as well. Fruits and berries make up a significant portion of their meals.

They have been known to feast on a variety of options, from strawberries and blueberries to cherries and blackberries.

Dietary Preferences

On the other hand, there are some differences in their preferences when it comes to feeding.

Catbirds, for instance, tend to favor berries more than mockingbirds. They particularly relish dark-colored ones, such as mulberries and elderberries.

Mockingbirds take a broader approach when it comes to fruit consumption. Besides berries, they also nibble on various types of fruits like apples, grapes, and even tomatoes.

You might even spot them diving into oranges at your bird feeder.

Speaking of bird feeders, the two species have different preferences in this area as well.

While catbirds are more likely to frequent a feeder that offers suet, mealworms, or grape jelly, mockingbirds prefer seed mixes and fruit slices.

So, if you want to attract them to your backyard, it’s important to tailor your feeder accordingly.

Nest Building

Catbird nestlings asleep in a nest
Catbird nestlings asleep in a nest

When you observe catbirds and mockingbirds, you’ll notice significant differences in their nesting and breeding habits.

Catbirds prefer to build their nests in dense shrubbery, using materials like twigs, grasses, and leaves gathered from their surroundings.

They often choose spots close to the ground to help protect them from predators.

As a bird watcher, you’ll notice catbirds cautiously hopping through your garden, foraging on the ground for nesting materials.

During spring, it’s common to see them gathering twigs as they prepare for the breeding season.

Mockingbirds tend to construct their nests at a lower elevation of less than 10 feet from the ground, but sometimes they’ll build nests as high as 60 feet off the ground.

They often choose branches or tree forks several feet off the ground, providing them with an excellent vantage point for observing potential threats.

These birds prefer to use materials such as dried weed stems, grasses, and even discarded human-made items while building their nests.

Male mockingbirds actively participate in both nest building and incubation process, sharing responsibilities with their female counterparts.

Breeding Behavior

In terms of mating behavior, male catbirds are known to be less aggressive than their mockingbird counterparts.

During the breeding season, male catbirds rely on their unique vocalization skills to attract females. They produce melodic and intricate song patterns that can easily capture the attention of bird enthusiasts and potential mates alike.

In contrast, male mockingbirds are territorial and often engage in aerial displays and vigorous chases to assert dominance and defend their nesting territory from intruders.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the differences between catbird and mockingbird songs?

Catbird songs are characterized by melodious yet somewhat raspy tunes, reflecting their name.

They often imitate the songs of other birds, but their repertoire is more limited compared to that of mockingbirds.

On the other hand, mockingbirds possess a vast range of songs, seamlessly switching between different tunes and mimicking various other birds, as well as non-bird sounds such as car alarms and cell phones.

How do male and female gray catbirds differ?

Male and female gray catbirds exhibit slight differences in appearance.

Both have gray feathers, but males tend to be darker and more slate-colored, whereas females are usually lighter gray.

Additionally, males may show a more prominent black cap on their head. However, these differences can be subtle, so identifying the gender of a gray catbird may not always be straightforward.

What are the primary differences between cowbirds and mockingbirds?

Cowbirds and mockingbirds have distinct characteristics that set them apart.

Cowbirds are known for their parasitic nesting behavior and dark, iridescent feathers. However, mockingbirds have a predominantly gray plumage and are known for their remarkable song mimicry.

Size-wise, cowbirds are typically smaller than mockingbirds. The way they behave and the sounds they produce also differ, with cowbirds usually being less vocal than the versatile mockingbird.

How does the geographic range of catbirds compare to that of mockingbirds?

The geographic range of catbirds and mockingbirds has some overlap, but their distributions are not identical.

Catbirds mainly inhabit eastern and central North America, and they migrate to Central America and the West Indies during winter.

Mockingbirds, on the other hand, are found throughout North America, extending southward to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.

While catbirds generally prefer dense, shrubby environments, mockingbirds can be found in a variety of habitats, including urban areas.

Which birds are most similar in appearance to mockingbirds?

Some birds that closely resemble mockingbirds include the gray catbird, as previously mentioned, and the loggerhead shrike.

Loggerhead shrikes have a similar gray and white coloration but can be distinguished by their more predatory nature, black facial mask, and hooked beak.

Another bird that may exhibit similarities in appearance is the northern shrike, which shares the coloring and facial mask but has a more extensive range into the northern regions.

Observe each bird’s size, plumage patterns, and behavior to accurately identify them and differentiate them from mockingbirds.

Video Demonstration of a Catbird “Mewing”

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