Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 21

May 23-29, 2002

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It’s Summer at Stoney Creek: The Catbirds Are Back

One swallow makes a summer.
— Robert Lowell, 1917-77

One swallow maketh not summer.
— John Heyward, 1497-1580

Who’s right? I don’t know much about swallows, though as a kid on the New England farm I was fascinated by both their swift flights into the barn and out again and their chase of insects once the sun began to set.

But I do know a bit about catbirds, enough to agree with Robert Lowell. A catbird makes a summer, and the more of them the better the summer.

It looks like it will be an enjoyable season up here on the shores of Stoney Creek in North County. If I’m not mistaken, at least four of these fascinating, brazen birds of gray with a black crown have taken up residence on our property.

Seeing that all catbirds look alike, it takes a bit of figuring to get a handle on the number, but this morning I spied three at once. They flew off toward the creek after snacking on grape jelly, and quickly thereafter a fourth bird came from the opposite direction for its ration.

So, presuming they will stick around, my summer is made. Though I must admit for a time I was getting a bit concerned. I wondered if this would be another year like 1986 when the whole season passed without my seeing a single cattie. That was a year without a summer.

The Catbird’s Meow
The catbird is a fairly common bird, also one quite popular among those who get to know one. Trouble is that many people don’t. They wouldn’t know a catbird if they saw one — unless they got to see one up close, which really isn’t difficult if one spends a little leisurely time in the back yard watching songbirds.

Robins, goldfinches, orioles, bluejays, hummingbirds, bluebirds, flickers or cardinals are easily recognizable. They’re exceptionally colorful. But for the most part the flickers, orioles, bluebirds and cardinals don’t particularly like to be in proximity with humans.

We behold the latter group from a distance. Goldfinches and other finches, hummers, mourning doves, sometimes bluejays and especially robins are more tolerant of people. They accept our presence — but don’t get too close!

But the catbird … I can’t say for sure which, but it’s either exceptionally friendly or exceptionally brazen or a combination of both. Yet it goes unnoticed by many because of its gray coloration from head to tail other than that black spot atop its head.

Still, I’ll tell you something. Those who appreciate backyard birds but don’t become familiar with catbirds are missing out on much interesting enjoyment. Despite its solid coloration, it is an attractive member of the bird family.

Some people mistake it for a small mockingbird, but the latter has some visible white and is an inch or two longer. The two are alike in that both face the world with a bold and fearless presence while they mock much other bird life in their songs. Both also make a lot of unmusical jabber.

The catbird goes the mockingbird one better. It can and frequently does meow just like a feline, so much so that those visiting here for the summer give 2-E a fit. 2-E, my white longhair cat, in warmer months spends much of her time in the screened-in porch on the east side of the house.

Cat vs. Catbird
She’s adopted from a shelter — our vet says beyond the age of 10 — so she’s not aggressive. She watches with casual interest the squirrels, birds, rabbits, even the ducks. But when a stray cat meanders onto the lawn, 2-E gets downright territorial.

So when a catbird picks from its repertoire what is probably its most used call, that of a cat, 2-E goes ape. Her fur puffs up and she paces the porch gingerly, her eyes glued to the lawn, her mouth spewing loud meows to warn the interloper that the yard — though she isn’t allowed on it other than when she sits on my lap on the glider as I read the morning papers — is her domain.

This doesn’t bother one bit any catbird stopping in for a snack. It meows back between dips of its bill into the grape jelly I put out every morning for catties. Now an infrequent cardinal gets up enough courage to come to the stash of jelly only a dozen feet from the house.

Here, Kitty
If birds interest you and you want to study them up close, 2-E and I can testify that you should try setting up shop for a catbird or more. They’re very accommodating, and they also eat a lot of insects, which represent about 50 percent of their diet. If you grow roses, catbirds can help you out: They rate Japanese beetles high on their menu.

I’ve yet to see a catbird join other birds at any of the 25 or so feeders that attract others year ’round on the lawn. I guess they’re not much for seeds, but they like fruit. The only downside in hosting them is they eat more than I of the wild blackberries that ripen in June on the steep slope to Stoney Creek. One can buy blackberries, but not catbirds.

However, anyone can attract catbirds. Once accomplished, you will have visitors daily from early May through much of August. What a way to study birdlife. Up here on Stoney Creek, the summering catbirds pester me almost like cats for their daily rations.

They light on the feeder or perhaps the back of the glider and meow if the jelly hasn’t been replenished. I can walk onto the lawn and not see a bird anywhere, but as soon as I tap the big tablespoon filled with grape jelly on the side of the feeder, a catbird or two comes from nowhere. They take a dab or two of jelly, then look me over and dig the bill into the jelly again. All from only three feet away.

They’re a pleasure to watch. Their gray feathers have an attractive sheen, and their black bills sparkles — as do their solid black eyes. And they offer the ideal opportunity to birdwatch up close. They have character.

When they first arrive, it takes them a few days to set up the routine. Then all timidity vanishes. That’s why I was worried when they were late arriving this year when everything else — like hardheads and rockfish — were early. What would a summer be without catbirds?

My first sighting was May 13 when a pair came to the grape jelly stash. From Vermont, Aunt MiMi had phoned to report her first sightings were a few days previous — on the afternoon of a morning when the thermometer read 23 degrees.

So you see why I was getting worried. A summer without catbirds? Perish the thought.

If your domicile is near woodlands or brush, or if there is a garden about, chances are you, too, can attract catbirds. Grape jelly is the key. Add a few raisins or currants, perhaps some shelled peanuts (which I can’t do because of the abundance of squirrels) and you’re in business.

Sooner or later, a catbird will find the offering — and it only takes one to make a summer. Let me know how it works out.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly