in the catbird seat, or the mystery bird uncovered

It all started earlier this summer when I saw an unfamiliar grey bird under the bird feeder in my next door neighbors’ front yard.  Now, I have been living in this house for 27 years this week, and have been watching the birds in this neighborhood for even longer, and (possibly rather smugly) I assumed that I knew every one of them by his or her first name by this point.

But not so much, apparently.  My first quick impression of this new guy was that it was a mockingbird, but it didn’t seem quite big enough and it didn’t show the distinctive white flashes under its wings when it took off.   This was definitely going to bug me until I figured it out.

Then the Mystery Bird started turning up in our backyard. (We don’t feed, but we have some nice overgrown shrubbery that makes good shelter for avian types.)  I was motivated to get out the bird books and narrowed the mystery down to a couple of options, but never got a good enough look to pick up any of the identification points.  It was its cry that gave the Mystery Bird away.

I heard a cat yelling, looked up and saw the Mystery Bird standing on the back fence looking straight at me.  Slate grey, slender, about the size of a robin or a little bigger, dark eye and a dark cap, and making a noise like a cat yelling– it’s a Grey Catbird, a relative of the mockingbirds and thrashers who winter in the South, near the Atlantic coast, and summer all through the Midwest.  The sound is completely distinctive– I am now pretty sure we have had Grey Catbirds for the past few summers and I just heard them and assumed they were cats.

So the next goal was to take a photograph of the former Mystery Bird, who was now hanging around in the yard a lot of the time, perching either on the fence or in the tops of the bushes and making a combination of cat noises, a kind of creaky, chunk, chunk sound, and various chirps and whistles.  (He actually stayed out there and meowed at me yesterday morning while I was hanging out the wash.  Even the dogs don’t bother him much.)

Here is the first photograph I took of the former Mystery Bird: this past Saturday afternoon, from inside the house, through the kitchen window, subject in motion, camera probably in motion, window none too clean– a real grab shot. Even sharpened, it’s pretty crummy. But hey, it proves the catbird does exist!

But later that afternoon, the catbird posed very nicely on the back fence, giving an identification even the Audubon Society would approve.  So here’s a major transformation, in a matter of a couple of weeks: from Mystery Bird to Our Backyard Pal, The Catbird.

Read more about the Grey Catbird, its appearance and habits, here.

And yes, this is the famous catbird from the common American English phrase “in the catbird seat” meaning to be in a comfortable, superior or advantageous position.  This expression comes from the catbird’s native territory in the Southern United States, and refers to the catbird’s habit of perching in the highest part of a thicket to sing for its mate.  I can report that Our Backyard Pal, the Catbird does exactly that, displaying its catalog of cat and bird noises from the tops of the big forsythia and the tall burning bush next to the garage.

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