Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Friday, May 5, 2017

5 Ways of Looking at a Catbird

The river is moving. The blackbird must be flying.   

Every spring day brings a new surprise. One day the perennial salvia looks dead from too much cold and rain, the next it's showing this year's leaves. Soon it will grow and have big spikes of purple flowers the bees love.

Birds have a way of surprising, too. Suddenly, there is a lot of birdsong in the mornings. There is still one white-throated sparrow from the winter in my yard, the nest box I thought would have a pair of house wrens as usual has been taken by a pair of chickadees (I can tell because the nest materials I see poking out at the seams are soft arborvitae leaves and animal fir, not the twigs used by house wrens) and such migrants as rose-breasted grosbeaks and black and white warblers have passed through the yard where I can see them.

But to me, it isn't spring until the catbird shows up.  One day you are wondering why you haven't seen or heard any yet this year, the next they are everywhere in the yard, in your neighbor's yard, in the local park. Come one, come all.

Catbird-2012 (Margo D. Beller)

Here are five ways of looking at a catbird, with apologies to Wallace Stevens.

    1. What is that black bird?

Actually, it is gray and its full name is the Gray Catbird. It has, as you can see above, a black eye, black atop its head and at the end of its tail. What you can't see is the distinctive red under the tail. This bird, Dumetella carolinensis, is a cousin to the robin but is not a thrush. Cornell's ornithology lab calls the catbird "secretive but energetic" and every morning I can depend on it to be singing in the dawn chorus with the house wren, chipping sparrow, cardinal and occasionally that remaining white-throated sparrow.

2. Why that name?

Catbirds have a mewing call that can sound like a cat. Its warbling song is actually an amalgam of other bird songs, similar to the mimicry of the mockingbird - another cousin - although the songs used are rarely that clear, at least to me. To me the catbird sounds like it is chattering with no set pattern, unlike the mockingbird.

3. Why would someone be in the catbird's seat?

The "catbird seat," according to Merriam-Webster, is a position of great prominence or advantage. It is a southern expression, one famously used by the sports announcer Red Barber while he was calling games for, among others, the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. In James Thurber's 1942 story "The Catbird Seat" he notes one of the characters uses that phrase a lot, probably from listening to Red Barber.

In my experience you are just as likely to find a catbird calling from within a bush or poking for food on the ground as you are to see one in a tree, rarely as high up as the mockingbird that doesn't care a bit if you hear its complicated mimicry and can see where it is.

However, it is true that many are the times I've been weeding the back garden or digging a hole to put in a plant or moving things around in the compost pile and found a catbird sitting over my head, waiting for me to walk away so it can swoop down and see what worms or other food I've inadvertently provided it.

4. Cold-blooded killer

Birds gotta eat, be they hawks swooping down to snatch a mourning dove picking at dropped seed under my feeder or a robin tugging at a worm struggling to stay in the ground after MH has cut the lawn.

When I think of catbirds I remember the time when a sphinx moth graced my property. I did not realize it was a moth at first because it was large, dark and hovered like a hummingbird as it fed from flowers with a long, thin, hummer-like bill.

It was flying among my flowering plants one day when out jumped a catbird to snatch a meal. I was amazed and upset. Who knew catbirds (or any bird for that matter) ate hummingbirds? 

However, I had wondered about that "hummer's" coloring. The only hummingbird we usually get in my area is the rubythroat, and this didn't have the right coloring, being more brownish than greenish. That was when I looked in MH's various insect books and learned about the sphinx moth. Still, I was sad to see it go and have held it against the catbird ever since.

5. Now you see it, now you don't.

One year I was watering shrubs at the side of the house and suddenly a catbird flew out to a nearby tree. Something made me look behind and there was a nest with two or three eggs in it. I left it alone. The next time I watered I shut off the hose and looked first and there she was, on her eggs. Not long after, all were gone.

Same with the end of the summer. One moment the catbirds have descended en masse in your yard, the next they have disappeared. It seems that when the summer is over, nearly all are out of here, heading to their wintering grounds in the U.S. south, Cuba and central America.

But I know they'll be back next spring. 

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