No, they don’t need to be rescued, and these weren’t even the ones in my back yard who sit quietly hidden in the branches and softly say, “Meow. Meow.” They are so convincing I’ve actually gone out to look for a cat a few times though I’m fairly certain it’s a bird I’m looking for!
These birds were on the bank of the creek where I walk to Main Street. As I approached the area where they were I heard more of a “chip! chip! chip!”, which I typically associate with cardinals as a warning sound. But seeing no red I looked for movement and immediately saw this small gray catbird clutching a rock and obviously giving orders.
Then I heard another catbird, farther down the bank very near the water. I looked closer and saw him clutching a fallen wingstem plant.
In the meantime the first cat bird was really working itself up!
I had an idea what was going on, and yes—there! Junior catbird hadn’t yet earned his pilot’s license and he was hopping about on the rocks. I had put my telephoto lens on my camera so I didn’t need to get too close and cause them all to fly away, but the mom and dad catbird were still pretty upset by this human hanging around and looking at them.
Junior moved to a more protected place and the first catbird observed the change.
The catbird that had been by the water moved up to protect Junior from the persistent one-eyed human talking nonsense. It’s also a good photo of a catbird if you need to identify one.
Catbirds are related to mockingbirds and thrashers and all are called “mimic thrushes”, and while they do imitate other birds and sounds in their environment, they are not quite as famous as mockingbirds for this charming habit. (Really, when the mockingbirds start up it makes me laugh—it’s as if you’ve turned them to “play” and they just keep methodically repeating from one sound after another until you’re really done listening.) Catbirds aren’t imitating cats, they simply make a sound that resembles a cat, though there are other features about them that I have always found very catlike and I’m pretty sure the other characteristics helped this bird be named for another species.
Catbirds are fairly small, smaller than an American Robin and more slender than an American Cardinal, which doesn’t help you at all if you are not from North America, but other countries have similar or related species for comparison. They are quite a lovely slate gray, actually a very catlike gray with silvery highlights. But they also have a black cap and their wings and tail are darker…kind of like Siamese points? I’m pushing it there, but those are distinguishing characteristics. Under the tail you’ll see a chestnut patch, as in the second photo.
They are about 9″ long, but more than the average length of that is their tail, and they use their tails to advantage, one of the things I really do find similar to cats. In most of the photos here you’ll see they have their tails tilted upward, and it can often go to a nearly 90 degree angle like a wren, and they also tend to flip that tail as they talk and hop around.
Aside from these two parents setting up a racket they are generally very quiet birds and tend to stay in hidden and protected areas such as dense trees and shrubs, grapevines and brambles—in fact, I’ve been trying to get a photo of one in the daylight for so long I was happy to see this threesome out in the daylight. But taken from all my years of rescuing cats, I’ve also found cats to keep to the same sorts of places. The one time they do display themselves is when they perch at the top of a tree and sing their little hearts out…kind of like a kitty who wants some attention.
So there’s today’s lesson on a bird! As you walk around, keep a lookout for whatever is there. You never know what you might find, even in the middle of a city.
Learn more about catbirds at Cornell University’s All About Birds page for the catbird.
The phrase “the catbird seat” means to find one’s self in a very advantageous circumstance, literally in a good seat to enjoy something, or in a good position where things are going well, “sitting pretty”; here is a pretty clear explanation of how the phrase was first used and what it’s come to mean. Here is James Thurber’s short story entitled The Catbird Seat
The catbird as a totem teaches you about communication, to communicate clearly, to learn other languages both metaphorically and literally, and also to be mindful of what you say and how you say it, as the catbird stays in the shadows and speaks sparingly until she finds the best spot from which to sing her message.
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