Sitting pretty with the catbird

Yesterday (mid-June as it happened), I wrote about one of my favorites, the catbird. Fighting every known allergy (a new experience for me and one I would definitely have done without), I had everything I needed to say but felt it was as terribly flat may I admit as downright uninspiring as I felt?

Today, with sun shining, I decided it was time to get back to my weeding (I don’t when it rains or lingers in the low 60s or, horrors! below) in spite of all that white stuff heavy in the air.

I may not feel better I don’t think I could feel worse but I had the enjoyment of spending part of the afternoon with my subject.

I’d actually seen a pair furtively scurrying up the drive at breakfast (mine, not theirs) and easily recognized the “meeow” call as I dug. I also heard an oriole, the jay and perhaps a cardinal. Or was it a robin? Then I recalled that the catbird is as good an imitator as its cousin, the mockingbird. The others are all here. I know that. But were they in the bushes near me or was I getting the full benefit of its varied recital?

A lovely shade of gray with a black skullcap and a rich reddish-brown patch beneath its tail, today it sat on a wire right above me. I know now it prefers the highest site around but was grateful I could watch him as he sang.

It is that propensity to perch high that led to the expression “in the catbird seat” for it refers to one enjoying an easy superiority, one who really has it made. The baseball announcer “Red” Barber is credited with coining the expression, possibly picked up from years spent in the Deep South. Its first appearance in print was in the “New Yorker” in 1942 in a short story by that marvelous funny man, James Thurber. Called “The Catbird Seat” one of Thurber’s characters describes it thus: ” ‘sitting in the catbird seat’ means sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him.”

Officially known now as the Gray Catbird I had to really dig to find a reason for that for it seemed alone in all my reference books. Turns out there is an all-black variety in Mexico.

You’ll turn a head or two if you tell a friend the bird if frugivorous. Then again, aren’t we all? It simply means fruit-eating.

An insect eater, it does prefer fruits, especially all sorts of berries. (I was told gardeners like the catbird because of the insect-eating part but I doubt many would welcome a voracious berry snacker. Then again, they’ll pass the seeds which in turn become a feast for chickadees and sparrows.)

I learned as well that this is a friendly little bird, happy to be sociable and thus among the easiest to hand-tame. (I did try once with a chickadee but confess I lack the patience. I mean, really, how many hours can one spend hand out-stretched waiting for a curious bird to make up its mind?)

Even if you’re as impatient as I, this little love has much to recommend it. He’s been known to rapidly respond when another bird cries in distress and might even care for the orphaned of another species. Nice to have around, right?

“Meow,” I hear again.

It doesn’t fool my cat or either of the dogs or usually even me. It’s just a happy song and I welcome it to my garden.

Susan Crossett is a Cassadaga resident. Send comments to