By Keith Michael
Meew. Meew. Meew.
Presumably, that’s how the Gray Catbird got its name.
At some point in ornithological history when the omnipotent Bird Naming Caucus convened on a backyard summer porch, someone drawled, “Oh, you’re ranting about that bird braying like a cat? I just call it that damn gray cat bird.” Done.
About the size of a Robin but slimmer and with a more expressive tail, the Catbird is one of the common birds that nest in the West Village. By September, their kids are already fledged, so the parents can indulge in a brief stay-cation before it’s time to fly south for the winter.
Once again, I’m in Hudson River Park on a Sunday afternoon and, once again, Millie sniffed at my offer for a fair-weather walk to the park in preference for a nap at home, and rolled over to face the wall. What’s to be said to a corgi who has made up her mind?
Frankly, the first that I remember thinking anything about a Catbird was after reading James Thurber’s inimitable story from a dogeared anthology in high school. His whimsical “The Catbird Seat” tale, not of the perfect murder (as the character Mr. Martin had intended) but an effective “pink-slipping” of the idiom-burdened Mrs. Ulgine Barrows, struck my Pennsylvanian fancy. Such repeated colloquialisms as, “Are you lifting the oxcart out of the ditch? Are you tearing up the pea patch? Are you hollering down the rain barrel?” were foreign to me but as colorful then as now. Likewise, though I never grew up with dogs, I always had an affinity for “Thurber’s dogs”—those wry squiggly canines that seemed about to disintegrate if the line of his drawings was inadvertently tugged. And please, please, please, never read Thurber’s “The Dog That Bit People” from My Life and Hard Times to Millie!
“Sitting in the catbird seat” refers to being in an enviable position “like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him.” Thurber attributes the expression’s popularity to the 1930s baseball announcer Walter “Red” Barber. I don’t know anything about baseball, much less about the banter of its radio announcers, and I really don’t know why a Catbird should get any better house seats than, say, a Mockingbird, Cardinal, Blue Jay, or Robin. All have excellent vocal chops. I might write an entire article about the merits of each chanteuse. The Catbird is a mimic like the Mockingbird, though as I like to say, “It doesn’t do it as well.” The Catbird may have a shorter attention span, as it tends to sing its mimic phrases only once, one after the other like run-on sentences, whereas the Mockingbird repeats each of its imitations several times before turning to the next page in its songbook. The Catbird does have one attribute that bests the Mockingbird: it does have its one namesake cat-like meowing to call its own. Curiously, the Catbird’s singing venue is frequently an inside-a-bush soundstage rather than the highest, most visible perch chosen by most compulsive songsters. Perhaps that box seat, coyly hidden, is, in fact, the catbird seat.
Today, sans Millie in the park, I can wander near the trees and bushes lining the lawns, rather than strictly hugging the railing of the promenade scanning for aquatic birds. Cicadas are shaking their summer maracas, butterflies are having a good year (several Monarchs, Tiger and Black Swallowtails, and Red Admirals flutter by), a dragonfly helicopters overhead then dashes away to fend off a competitor hovering dragonfly, and Barn Swallows start to swoop by me as I scare up a bug smorgasbord just by walking through the grass.
At last, deep in a yew bush (with its end-of-summer red berries and filigree of spider webs), I hear the Catbird’s musical, slightly hoarse, rambling chortling squawking whistling aria, and finally, its characteristic meew meew meew. After phishing (a birders’ sound I embarrassingly make to entice some curious birds out to investigate a cheeky intruder), right on cue, the Catbird pops up with its flashing black eyes and jaunty black cap. It snaps its tail open and closed like a Flamenco dancer’s fan.
Satisfied that my lame phishing is hardly a threat, the Catbird disappears again to its obscure perch. Perhaps it’s time for me to “disappear” too—back home to see if Millie has been “tearing up the pea patch” in my absence. Unlikely.
Visit keithmichaelnyc.com for the latest schedule of New York City WILD! urban-adventures-in-nature outings throughout the five boroughs and visit his Instagram @newyorkcitywild for photos from around NYC.