Catbird vs. Mockingbird: 6 Key Differences

Catbird vs Mockingbird

Written by Patrick Sather

Updated: July 10, 2023

Share on:


The gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) and the northern mockingbird (Sturnus vulgaris) both belong to the family Mimidae. These songbirds rank among the world’s best mimics, as each can imitate over a hundred different sounds. Due to their powers of mimicry, bird watchers love to observe these masters of song at work. However, the two birds look strikingly similar, which can make telling them apart difficult. However, if you know what to look for (and listen to), you can quickly tell them apart. If you want to know how to tell the difference between a catbird vs. mockingbird, you’ve come to the right place. Keep reading to learn the 6 key differences between a catbird vs. mockingbird. 

Catbird vs. Mockingbird

Gray catbirds and northern mockingbirds are both perching birds in the order Passeriformes. As members of the family Mimidae, each possesses impressive powers of mimicry, powers that give the family its name. While they appear and sound similar, you can easily tell these birds apart with practice. 

Let’s take a look at 6 key differences that separate a catbird vs. mockingbird. Differences include size, coloration, eye color, calls, habitat, and range. 

Comparing Catbird vs. Mockingbird

Size8.1 to 9.4 inches8.1 to 11 inches
ColorationLead gray with a dark headGray upperparts, white underparts, and parallel white wing bars
EyesBlackYellow or green-yellow iris, black pupil
CallsRaspy, cat-like sounds
Sings most phrases only once
Varied warbles, chirps, and buzzes
Normally repeats phrases 3 to 5 times before changing
HabitatScrubland, orchards, woodland edges, and overgrown vegetationOpen areas, parks, gardens, and desert scrubland
RangeSouthern Canada, eastern Central America, and all of the United States east of the Rocky MountainsAll of Central America, the Caribbean, and the United States, excluding the Pacific Northwest and northern Midwest

The 6 Key Differences Between Catbirds vs. Mockingbirds

Catbird vs. Mockingbird: Size

Grey catbird

The gray catbird measures slightly smaller than the northern mockingbird on average.

Both the gray catbird and the northern mockingbird rank as medium-sized songbirds. While similar in size, you can quickly differentiate one from the other when placing them side by side. Do this, and you’ll soon see that fully mature mockingbirds measure larger than catbirds. 

The average gray catbird measures between 8.1 and 9.4 inches long. Their wingspan measures between 8.7 and 11.8 inches, and the tail measures from 2.8 to 4.1 inches long. Most specimens weigh between 1.2 and 1.4 ounces. Males and females appear exactly the same, which can make telling one from the other difficult. The only way to differentiate a male from a female is to observe their behaviors during the breeding season. 

On average, northern mockingbirds measure 8.1 to 11 inches long. The tail measures nearly half that length at 3.9 to 5.3 inches long. Meanwhile, they sport a wingspan between 12 and 15 inches long. Most northern mockingbirds weigh from 1.4 to 2 ounces. Unlike catbirds, which display no sexual dimorphism, male mockingbirds tend to measure larger than females. 

Catbird vs. Mockingbird: Coloration

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos, strikes a raised-wing display.

Unlike the gray catbird, the northern mockingbird sports distinctive parallel wing bars.

At first glance, gray catbirds and northern mockingbirds appear to possess similar coloring. After all, both sport primarily light gray feathers. However, look long enough, and you’ll soon spot several key differences that you can remember to tell them apart. 

Gray catbirds look almost entirely lead gray. Their upperparts and underparts do not vary in color, nor do their wings. Only the upper part of the head appears slightly different, as it takes on a slightly darker shade of gray. 

Like gray catbirds, northern mockingbirds also look mostly gray. However, unlike catbirds, they do not possess uniform gray coloring. While the upperparts look light gray, the underparts look white. Additionally, northern mockingbirds feature a pair of parallel white wing bars on each wing. 

Catbird vs. Mockingbird: Eyes

Up close, you can typically identify a catbird vs. mockingbird by size or color. However, if you get close enough, you can spot one key difference that will immediately inform you as to the bird’s identity; eye color. 

Gray catbirds possess almost uniformly black or dark eyes. Meanwhile, northern mockingbirds have a yellow or greenish-yellow iris and a black pupil. Sometimes their eyes can even look orange. 

Catbird vs. Mockingbird: Call

Northern Mockingbird pair (Mimus polyglottos) perched on a branch against the bright blue sky.

The northern mockingbird normally repeats phrases 3 to 5 times, unlike the gray catbird.

Catbirds and mockingbirds both possess incredible powers of mimicry. These birds can both mimic the calls of other birds as well as other animals and even mechanical sounds. While these mimics can adopt a variety of voices, you can tell them apart thanks to a few key differences. 

Gray catbirds make a distinctive cat-like call, hence their name. Their raspy, harsh calls sound less musical than the vocalizations of northern mockingbirds. Additionally, unlike mockingbirds, catbirds typically only repeat a song phrase once before switching to a new phrase. 

Northern mockingbirds rank among the most prolific of all songbirds, particularly the males. They create both mimicked as well as original sounds. Their original chirps, warbles, and buzzes are divided into four basic calls, including the hew call, chat or chatburst, begging call, and nest relief call. Northern mockingbirds utilize these calls for various reasons, including as an alert for predators, to communicate with mates, and for courtship. When singing, northern mockingbirds often sing a phrase 3 to 5 times before changing phrases. 

Catbird vs. Mockingbird: Habitat

Although gray catbirds and northern catbirds look and sound similar, you won’t typically find them in the same area. That’s because they tend to reside in different habitats.  

You can often find gray catbirds near the edge of woodlands or forests. They prefer to live in dense vegetation but avoid dense forests or woodlands. Scrublands, orchards, and thorny thickets all make prime gray catbird habitats. 

While gray catbirds prefer dense vegetation, northern mockingbirds prefer more open habitats. They shun thick, overcrowded forests and instead choose open areas such as parks and gardens. You can also find them in desert scrubland and chaparral regions. 

Catbird vs. Mockingbird: Range

Gray Catbird

The gray catbird prefers dense thorny vegetation, while the northern mockingbird likes more open areas.

Gray catbirds and northern mockingbirds are both native to North America. While you can find gray catbirds and northern mockingbirds in many of the same places, their ranges differ slightly. 

Gray catbirds live throughout the temperate regions of North America. They breed in southern Canada as well as the central and southern United States. During the winter, most gray catbirds migrate to the southeastern United States or to parts of Central America east of the American Cordillera. You can also find them year-round in the eastern and southeastern United States.

Northern mockingbirds are found throughout almost the entirety of the United States as well as all of Central America and the Caribbean. The only places they are absent include the Pacific Northwest and the northern Midwest. Populations that live in more northern states tend to migrate further south during winter. 

Share this post on:

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.