By Bill Chaisson
I will show my age by recalling fondly the conversations between Red Barber and Bob Edwards on Fridays during NPR’s Morning Edition. Although Barber was a retired sports announcer, he was more importantly a variety of Southern sage who told all kinds of great stories, not necessarily about sports, that included many regional expressions. One of my favorites was “sitting in the catbird seat.” He used it often enough so that his autobiography was called “Rhubarb in the Catbird Seat.”
Barber claimed to have first heard the expression during a poker game in Cincinnati during the Depression. In 1942, James Thurber published a story called “The Catbird Seat” in which a character called Mrs. Barrows uses the phrase frequently and is said to have picked it up by listening to Barber call baseball games on the radio.
Whatever its origin, it has the agreed upon meaning of “being in an enviable position.” The less regional equivalent is “sitting pretty.” But why a catbird?
Looking out my window this morning, I was surprised to see our local catbird still hopping around in the hedge that includes oak saplings with leaves that are rapidly turning an orangey autumnal red. Catbirds are a migratory species, but our pair is still with us. They are secretive species and they emerge regularly enough to let us know they are there.
They get their name from one of their many querulous calls, which sounds very much like an annoyed cat. These calls are often emitted from deep in the cover of overgrown vegetation. One can imagine that a Southerner hearing this bird repeatedly express a clearly heard and apparently critical opinion while entirely out of sight might find that bird to be in an enviable position.
While the Oxford English Dictionary calls the catbird a thrush, it is in fact a “mimic thrush.” The Mimidae include four groups, the most diverse of which are the thrashers, followed by the mockingbirds. The tremblers are confined entirely to the Lesser Antilles. There are only two catbirds, and they are each in their own genus.
The black catbird (Melanoptila glabrirostris) is found only on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico and adjacent areas of Belize and Guatemala. In contrast, the gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) is more widespread in North America than any other member of its family. During the breeding season it is found from southern British Columbia to the maritime provinces and south across the United States. It is absent only in the West Coast states and in the desert Southwest, where its niche is perhaps occupied by one of many thrasher species found there.
Historically, the only other mimid in New Hampshire has been the brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum). The thrasher is widespread in the state, but is seen less often than the catbird. Its number declined sharply between 1966-1987, apparently because the tangled shrubs along country roads that it favors for breeding and foraging became less common.
The catbird is equally at home in your backyard and in dense remote shrub swamps, which are widespread in New Hampshire. “Birds of New Hampshire” notes that the catbird breeding population has been declining since the 1970s due to reforestation. While they call the thrasher a rare to uncommon summer resident, the catbird is still considered common. D. carolinensis does not seem to have been displaced by the incursion of a third mimid, the northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos).
Although mockingbirds were seen on rare occasions in New Hampshire through the early 20th century, the first nest was found in 1957 in Durham. By 1987, the Breeding Bird Survey recorded 43 pairs nesting in the southern part of the state. In the mid-1990s (when the state breeding bird atlas was published), breeding records were still all south of the White Mountains.
According to the atlas, my catbird is a straggler. Most migrate south by the end of September and only a very few have been known to overwinter, mostly on the coast and in the southeastern region. A lack of food may be a limiting factor, as catbirds have a diet evenly split between animal and vegetable sources, but the latter is made up largely of fruit rather than seeds.
This species is reportedly not well loved by other birds and may be driven off, reportedly because it eats eggs. It is also known to not tolerate parasitism by cowbirds. Despite its appetite for cultivated fruit, most humans find catbirds appealing because of its voice and its teasing habits.
Mimids are so-called for their ability to imitate the songs of other birds. The mockingbird is justifiably famous for its superior talent in this regard. The “original” songs among mimids are similar in the sense that they consist of all manner of chirps, whistles, squeaks, and slurring notes. While the mockingbird repeats the same sound six or seven times before moving on, the brown thrasher repeats itself only twice. The catbird, however, voices each different sound only once, which produces a song that varies at an astounding clip compared to its fellow mimids. You will hear it replicate pieces of other birds’ songs, but it goes by in the blink of an … ear.
Despite outward appearances and their vernacular name, the mimic thrushes are most closely related to the starlings. Within the Mimidae, the gray catbird seems most closely related to the Antillean white-breasted thrasher of St. Lucia and Martinique and less closely related to the black catbird of the Yucatan. Although we have the gray catbird as a breeder, it spends its winters in the Greater Antilles and Central America. While its closest relatives may have once inhabited the continent and Greater Antilles with it, they have retreated to the smaller islands at the eastern edge of the Caribbean, while the gray catbird spread northward. It does so each spring and the retreats to the “homeland” each winter.
Bill Chaisson, who has been a birdwatcher since age 11, is a former editor of the Eagle Times. He now works for the Town of Wilmot and lives in Sutton.