Friday, July 2, 2010

Gray Catbird: Sunporch Soundtrack

We’ve been having some fantastic days here—it’s been in the 70s, with a nice breeze and low humidity. We’ve got all the windows open. I love how this old house catches the breezes, up on this hill and with so many good windows. What a nice day!

I spent a few hours the other morning painting on the walls of the sunporch. We picked a light fresh green—an extremely pale version of the color “lime.” . . . And I was sipping coffee.

Man, that breeze was nice, coming through those banks of windows. In the summer, Grandma used to practically live on the sunporch. (No air-conditioning!) I predict we’ll have a lot of pleasant time spent out there this fall. It is going to be like a completely new room. And I’m thrilled with the ceiling—I think the guys did a good job. You would never know there had been a huge gaping hole in the ceiling.

By the way, if you’re local, it’s M.S.V. Exteriors that did the work; Shaun Vanover is the owner. They actually specialize in exteriors (hence the name), siding, decks, covered porches, remodeling, and room additions, but they did a wonderful job on our “little” project of replacing our poor ol’ water-damaged plaster ceiling. Yes, I’m recommending them. They did a great job, exceeded our expectations.

. . . Okay, so I was out there on the sunporch, which feels like a treehouse because of all the windows, and I was so pleased with the new ceiling, and painting that creamy green back and forth along the baseboards, with the breeze blowing in.

And there’s been a pair of catbirds hanging out in our yard the past few weeks—are you familiar with them? They are rather hard to spot. They are often secretive—they hide in the middle of a bush or a densely foliaged tree. They don’t even like to fly through open areas. And yes, they’re gray. (The spiffy black cap and rusty crissum aren’t immediately apparent in the brief glimpses you get of this bird.) But a catbird’s presence is abundantly obvious when he’s singing.

Catbirds are in the Mimidae, the same family with mockingbirds and thrashers, a family of mimics. I read that the male catbird can have a song that lasts for ten minutes.

Unlike mockingbirds, which repeat their mocked phrases 3–6 times, the catbirds don’t repeat a mocked song at all. A mockingbird goes, “tewdydoo, tewdydoo, tewdydoo; tooka-tooka-tooka-tooka; tee-doo, tee-doo, tee-doo, tee-doo; beedle-dee, beedle-dee, beedle-dee . . .” But the catbird will sit there and gurgle out: "tewdedoo, tooka, tee-doo, beedle-dee, teechurr, cheweep, cheeew, twitter-itter, chewee, cheerio, squeeeder-eep . . .” with no discernable rhyme or reason. Compared to the mockingbird’s chanting repetitions, the catbird scats out improvised nonsense, like twelve-tone, high-modernist music—melodious, but with no melody.

Indeed, my beloved old copy of Birds of America (ed. T. Gilbert Pearson, New York: Garden City Books, 1936) has this quaint, naively politically incorrect way of describing the chattery whistles of the catbird: “Somebody has said that the Catbird ‘sings Chinese,’ which is rather clever, since there is a certain resemblance between his erratic potpourri and the queer half-musical, half-gutteral ups and downs of the Celestial’s speech.”

(Is that an offensive, racist comparison? I have to say that there is something to it, since Chinese, which has its own unique melodious quality, does sound like strange music to the ear of a native English speaker. This is not a stretch, and it’s not particularly insensitive. For example, a Chinese American friend of mine, who speaks no Chinese, described his own grandmother’s language as “gibberish.” And he meant no offense by it, either; it was simply an honest assessment of the hopelessness of their language barrier.)

But back to the catbird. After saying that the catbird “sings Chinese,” the same book emphasizes the musicality of the bird’s voice: “It is undoubtedly one of the most interesting of bird utterances, and usually contains many melodious phrases as well as piquant musical flourishes. In it one may hear reproduced the characteristic tones of the flute, piccolo, and clarionet, as well as the violin and even the higher tones of the cello” (3:178–79).

But wait! There’s more—the “meows,” which the catbird is named for. After (or amid) all that pretty whistling, the bird often utters a raspy, nasal, smeary “meeeew,” which sounds amazingly like a cat. It’s almost too much to believe.

Birds of America lists several birds whose voices are accurately mimicked by the catbird, then quotes a Mr. Matthews, who said that among these birdsongs, “the yowl of the cat is thrown in any where, the gutteral remarks of the frog are repeated without the slightest deference to good taste or appropriateness, and the harsh squawk of the old hen, or the chirp of the lost chicken, is always added in some malapropos manner. All is grist which comes to the Catbird’s musical mill, and all is ground out according to the bird’s own way of thinking” (3:179).

I mean, if we’re going to be “all sensitive,” we might as well point out here that we are making a huge aesthetic value judgment when we say that mimicked bird whistles are mellifluous and the voice of a cat is a “yowl” that is not in “good taste.” Why isn’t a cat’s voice beautiful? Who’s to say?

Remember when I told you about finding a typewritten speech that my grandma had made? Well, she talks about catbirds in it, too. Here’s what she had to say:

The Catbird is slim, lithe, elegant and dainty, a sort of Beau Brummel, in smooth, gray feathers who has preened and prinked until his toilet is quite faultless. He is among the first to discover the bird bath that we have set in our yard, and he is not too squeamish—in spite of his fine appearance—to drink from his bath. He delights us with the sweetest of songs, not loud like the Brown Thrasher’s, but similar, only it is more exquisitely finished and rippling. The next minute, though, you feel like stopping your ears when he utters the disagreeable cat call that has given him his name.

Yeah, Grandma didn’t think very highly of cats . . . but she did make a point of defending catbirds. Her speech continues:

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 is worth cultivating. Five Catbirds, whose diet was carefully watched by scientific men in Washington, ate 30 grasshoppers each for one meal. 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, is he not entitled to a little fruit in June? A good way to protect our strawberries and cherries from Catbirds, Mockingbirds and Robins is to provide fruit that they like much better: red mulberry. A mulberry tree in the yard is a popular restaurant.

Grandma had a big mulberry tree in the backyard. It’s long gone now, but its progeny still come up as immortal weeds all over the place. Their roots go clear down to . . . China, I do believe. (Too lazy and toxin-phobic to grab the Round-Up, we nip them off at ground level several times a year.)

. . . Anyway, I was thinking of all this stuff while I was painting in that big, empty room with the open windows, enjoying the air, while Mr. Catbird was attending our yard, singing from the depths of one tree and then another; his chattering, “Chinese” melody was my sunporch soundtrack.

Okay, you’ve read this far: Now for a little game! This is to give you an idea of how hard it is to see catbirds when they’re hiding deep in the trees: How many pictures in this post actually include a catbird in them?

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