Bird Identification – The Catbird
Slim, lithe, elegant, dainty, the catbird, as he runs lightly over the lawn or hunts among the shrubbery, appears to be a fine gentleman among his kind—a sort of Beau Brummel in smooth, gray feathers who has preened and prinked until his toilet is quite faultless. You would not be surprised to hear that he slept on rose petals and manicured his claws. He is among the first to discover the bathing dish or drinking pan that you have set up in your garden, for he is not too squeamish, in spite of his fine appearance, to drink from his bath. With well-poised, black-capped head erect, and tail up too, wren fashion, he stands at attention on the rim of the dish, alert, listening, tense—the neatest, trimmest figure in birddom.
After he has flown off to the nearest thicket, what a change suddenly comes over him! Can it be the same bird? With puffed out, ruffled feathers, hanging head, and drooping tail, he now suggests a fat, tousled schoolboy, just tumbled out of bed. Was ever a bird more contradictory? One minute, from the depths of the bushy undergrowth where he loves to hide, he delights you with the sweetest of songs, not loud like the brown thrasher’s, but similar; only it is more exquisitely finished, and rippling. “Prut! Prut! coquillicot!” he begins. “Really, really, coquillicot! Hey, coquillicot! Hey, victory!” his inimitable song goes on like a rollicking recitative. The next minute you would gladly stop your ears when he utters the disagreeable cat-call that has given him his name. “Zeay, Zeay”—whines the petulant cry. Now you see him on the ground calmly looking for grasshoppers, or daintily helping himself to a morsel from the dog’s plate at the kitchen door. Suddenly, with a jerk and a jump, he has sprung into the air to seize a passing moth. There is always the pleasure of variety and the unexpected about the catbird.
He is very intelligent and friendly, like his cousin, the mockingbird. One catbird that comes to visit me at least ten times every day, can scarcely wait for the milk to be poured into the dog’s bowl before he has flown to the brim for the first drink. Once, in his eagerness, he alighted on the pitcher in my hand. He has a pretty trick of flying to the sun dial as if he wished to learn the time of day. From this point of vantage, he will sail off suddenly, like a flycatcher, to seize an insect on the wing. He has a keen appetite for so many pests of the garden and orchard—moths, grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars, spiders, flies and other insects—that his friendship, you see, is well worth cultivating. Five catbirds, whose diet was carefully watched by scientific men in Washington, ate thirty grasshoppers each for one meal.
Yet how many people ignorantly abuse the catbird! Because he has the good taste to like strawberries and cherries as well as we do, is he to be condemned on that account? If he kills insects for us every waking hour from April to October, don’t you think he is entitled to a little fruit in June? The ox that treadeth out the corn is not to be muzzled, so that he cannot have a taste of it, you remember. A good way to protect our strawberry patches and cherry trees from catbirds, mockingbirds, and robins, is to provide fruit that they like much better—the red mulberry. Nothing attracts so many birds to a place. A mulberry tree in the chicken yard provides a very popular restaurant, not only for the song birds among the branches, but for the scratchers on the ground floor.
Like the yellow-breasted chat, the catbird likes to hide its nest in a tangle of cat brier along the roadside undergrowth and in bushy, woodland thickets. Last winter, when that vicious vine had lost every leaf, I counted in it eighteen catbird nests within a quarter of a mile along a country lane. Long before the first snowstorm, the inmates of those nests were enjoying summer weather again from the Gulf States to Panama. If one nest should be disturbed in May or June, when the birds are raising their families, all the catbird neighbours join in the outcry of mews and cat-calls. Should a disaster happen to the parents, the orphans will receive food and care from some devoted foster-mother until they are able to fly. You see catbirds are something far better than intelligent, musical dandies.