The Catbird

It’s time to resurrect this moribund blog.  To be sure, I have been posting a little on my radio-show blog, Hillbilly at Harvard.  Two posts on the musical life of fiddler (and mathematician-engineer) Tex Logan took a fair amount of time to research and compose, so if country music interests you, click on that link and scroll down.

To get these still waters flowing again, let’s talk about birds.  I am no more an expert on birds than on anything else, but the neat thing about the backyard birds is the engaging novelty they present.  With my home-office door open, I am treated to an uncoordinated stream of musical—and sometimes unmusical—chirps, whistles, calls, trills, squawks, croaks, titters—like an orchestra always tuning up, but never playing anything.  There are standouts, though, brief audible glimpses of important works: the loud, clear notes of a Cardinal cutting through, for instance, or the lovely melody of the Carolina Wren.

I have a special relationship, though, with The Catbird.  There are several Catbirds around, of course, but we speak of “The Catbird” as if there were only one.  And there may be only one in the world that knows my “Come and get it!” whistle.

After I fill the backyard feeders, I sing out, “Come and get it!” and then whistle the tune.  One evening last year, to my great astonishment, a bird whistled it back to me.  It was The Catbird.

The Catbird (in general) is a mimic, like the Mockingbird.  We used to have a summer Mockingbird that commanded the top of a nearby telephone pole and serenaded us in the evening, but that was some years ago.  Not sure why he left; maybe global cooling (i.e. New England cooling—there isn’t really ‘global’ anything).  Or maybe the catbirds grabbed the tastiest bugs.  In any case, we now have The Catbird.  His repertoire is not as  melodic as the Mockingbird’s, containing as it does various mews (whence his name), squawks, and chitters—blackbird influences?  But he is still vastly entertaining to hear.


A Catbird—not The Catbird, but one I found exposed at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston.

I was delighted to discover The Catbird imitating my “Come and get it!” whistle, but even more pleased to find him back this year and still singing it.  The bird experts in the family were dubious, but when they visited a few weeks ago, there it was, amidst the usual catbirdish chatter, as clear as a bell.  Son-in-law James heard it, and came up to me and asked, “Did you whistle the call?”  Nope, I hadn’t; it was the bird.  Here; you can listen for yourself (first one c. 17 seconds in; ):

Is this a part of many Catbirds’ repertoires?  Maybe, but I like to think I have started something amongst the Catbird clan.  Surely The Catbird will be teaching it to his kith and kin.

Etymological Note: “In the Catbird Seat”

The Catbird takes his name from his occasional mewing call.  The phrase “In the catbird seat” is more of a puzzle.  It means “In an advantageous position,” and reportedly its earliest appearance in print was in a 1942 story by James Thurber (he and E. B. White were the heart and soul of The New Yorker back in the ’40s).  In the story, called “The Catbird’s Seat,” mild-mannered bookkeeper Mr. Martin plots to “rub out” an annoying woman his boss had brought into the office.  Mrs. Ulgine Barrows was in the habit of accosting co-workers with loud, colloquial questions, like “Are you tearing up the pea patch?”  “Are you sitting in the catbird seat?”

Thurber offers a source for these expressions in the story itself:

It was Joey Hart, one of Mr. Martin’s two assistants, who had explained what the gibberish meant. “She must be a Dodger fan,” he had said. “Red Barber announces the Dodger games over the radio and he uses those expressions–picked ‘em up down South.” Joey had gone on to explain one or two. “Tearing up the pea patch” meant going on a rampage; “sitting in the catbird seat” means sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him. . .

Red Barber himself agreed (from Wikipedia):

The phrase “In the catbird seat” was among the numerous folksy expressions used by Barber. According to Barber’s daughter, after her father read Thurber’s story, he began using the phrase “in the catbird seat.” This seems to reverse events, however, as the passage of story quoted above clearly references Barber himself. According to “Colonel” Bob Edwards‘s book Fridays with Red, Barber claimed that Thurber got this and many other expressions from him, and that Barber had first heard the term used during a poker game in Cincinnati during the Great Depression. Barber himself also put forth this version of events in his 1968 autobiography, Rhubarb in the Catbird Seat.

Douglas Harper describes “Catbird seat” as “a 19c. Dixieism.”

Odd, however, that the expression took so long to get into print.  What I find even more puzzling is that the meaning applies more to the Mockingbird than to the Catbird.  Michael Quinion in a website called World Wide Words writes,

. . . The phrase is said to derive from the habit of the catbird of sitting on the highest point it can find to deliver its song, thus suggesting an effortless superiority. Subscriber Dan Lufkin confirmed this in an e-mail: “If you lived in catbird country, as I do, you would instantly recognize the catbird seat as the highest point in your yard, from which a catbird — or its cousin, a mockingbird — begins loudly staking its territorial claim at first light, typically about 4:45 a.m. in the nesting season.”

But while the Mockingbird is always easy to spot on his high perch, from which he will occasionally leap up in a fit of exuberance, the Catbird is in my experience generally invisible, buried in the foliage of trees and bushes.  Are the Catbirds of the South any different?  Or does the expression confuse the two?  The Cornell website All About Birds does claim that “Singing males sit atop shrubs and small trees.”  But here The Catbird doesn’t.   I can hear him, but without a determined search, I can’t see him.  Still, “the Catbird seat” may have some advantages: with three balls and no strikes, the pitcher may find the strike zone increasingly invisible. /LEJ

[Technical update: It turns out that with the free WordPress you can’t just embed an audio file in a post willy-nilly. So I created a SoundCloud account, which does support WordPress embedding: you can now just click and listen.  If for some reason that doesn’t work, go HERE, where you can listen on-line or download the MP3 file.  Life isn’t as simple as I’d like, sometimes, but then, imagine doing any of this 50 years ago. Edit: Link updated 27Mar16.]

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