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All-white Catbird or Mockingbird?

Image(1)Kim Messerly of Michigan came across my Bird Watcher column of yore about the all-white catbird that visited the Celery Farm several years ago.

When Kim emailed me and asked, I thought this might be one as well.

But Kim wonders, could it be an all-white mockingbird instead?

I said I'd post on the blog.

What do you think?

(Thanks in advance.)

Here's the old column because why not? :- )

By Jim Wright
Special to The Record
   For several weeks last month, an all-white catbird made regular appearances in a corner of the Celery Farm Natural Area in Allendale -- much to the delight of bird-watchers seeking a glimpse of the rare or unusual. Catbird barrack 5 (2)
   The bird, first reported by Fred Weber of Waldwick, hung out in the general vicinity of nearly two-dozen gray catbirds along a 30-yard stretch of path now called Catbird Lane.
   Many folks found the bird with little effort. Some saw it silently hopping along the ground in search of bugs. Some found it perched high in a tree, making that familiar discordant meow-like sound that catbirds so love to make. Still others said that it just popped out on a branch in front of them, as big as you please.
   Every time I looked for the bird, I failed miserably -- to the point where I dubbed the bird “Moby Catbird,” after Melville's elusive and novel great white whale.
   When I finally espied Moby -- with the help of a charitable birder friend -- it hung around for 40 minutes and even rummaged through some underbrush just a few feet away.
   From what we observed, the bird’s diet consisted of various berries of such invasive species as autumn olive, porcelainberry and Asiatic bittersweet. We even saw it eat a caterpillar (catbirderpillar?) for Sunday dinner -- probably for the protein.
   As Catbird Lane’s berry supply dwindled, so did the catbirds, and I never saw Moby again. But questions about the bird continued. People wanted to know: “Is it an albino catbird, or something else?” and “Just how rare is it?”
   The consensus of experts I consulted was that since the bird had dark eyes, not pink eyes, it was “leucistic” (from the Greek word for “white”) and not albino. Whichever way I pronounced “leucistic,” however, the person I was talking with pronounced it another way. So now I just call it "all-white.”
   As for rarity, I could not find anyone who had ever seen or heard of an all-white catbird before -- not even Hannah Suthers, a retired research assistant at Princeton University who has banded more than 25,000 catbirds in Mercer County over 45 years.
   Suthers says that since the all-white catbird had not been reported elsewhere, the bird had been “very likely” hatched nearby.
   Suthers finds catbirds fascinating because they’re “so interesting to watch -- their personalities, the way they react to you when you’re outdoors…They’re curious and check things out.”
   As curious, you might say, as a cat.
   Suthers’ research at the Featherbed Lane banding station was instrumental in helping banders distinguish males and females outside of breeding season -- once considered impossible.
   She has also learned that some catbirds in New Jersey now raise three clutches of young each year instead of the usual one or two -- a result, she says, of “the overall warming trend.”
According to Suthers, New Jersey’s catbirds migrate each fall as far away as Central America, with some over-wintering in Florida (as many humans are also wont to do) -- adding that one of her banded catbirds was later recaptured in Guatemala, some 2,000 miles away.
   Suthers says that Moby could return to the Celery Farm in May: “They’re very site- faithful. They come back to their territory every year as long as they live.”
   Who knows? Maybe “Moby Catbird” will begin a new chapter next spring.  (Photo by Jerry Barrack)