Baby Catbirds!

I fancy I have a special relation with The Catbird, as I described back in 2015. Last summer, however, he seemed to abandon us; there were few around, and there was a dearth of the imitative singing they offer. Maybe it was the drought; had it dried up all the good bugs? Certainly by August the water over the big dam at Saxonville had diminished to barely a trickle, and when we canoed from Pelham Island Road upriver (but down from us—we are above the dam) we discovered that beavers had built their own dam all the way across the Sudbury River. I doubt if they could have managed that in other years.

This year, however, the catbirds are back; not throngs, but a couple at any rate. And not, apparently, the one who learned my ‘Come and get it’ call, and, so far, not the loquacious ones at all. I’m not sure what stimulates them to excesses of verbiage, but here they’ve been mainly mewing, which to my mind is mainly a caw, like a crow but more demure. I should mention that last month, on an afternoon paddle on the Charles River south of here, there were quite a few singing catbirds. So maybe the catbirds in our little patch of woods are not quite at the demonstrative stage, whenever that is. Maybe it’s still the bugs.

They are, however, breeding. We were delighted to discover that a pair had built a nest at eye level in a shrub right next to the path to the river. Here’s the Momma bird on the nest on July 9th:


And here she is out on business (July 12th):


I can’t actually tell the males from the females, so I’ll assume it’s Momma (why are some birds sexually dimorphic, while others are not?). While she was out, we got a glimpse of the nest. It’s out of focus, but you can see a beak or two if you look closely (July 14th):


Mama’s back on the nest (July 15th),


and then she’s off. Here are two beaks waiting for lunch:


A couple of days later, bright-eyed and alert (July 17th)


Wait! There are three young’uns! (July 18th):


By the next day, however, there were only two. What happened to the third?


We left for a while to watch a crew spraying herbicide on the river, which the Town had approved after long debate in order to eradicate the thick mat of invasive Asian Water Chestnut that had taken over our section of the dammed-up river (a story for another day). When we came back, there was only one youngster, and he was perched precariously on the edge of the nest. Had the others been taken by a hawk or something? We had heard nothing.


By later that afternoon, the nest was empty. We feared the worst. But Momma was around, and cawing. (The bird people call it ‘mewing’, like a cat, and it often sounds like one, but as I mentioned earlier, it sounds more like the ‘caw’ of a rather anemic crow.) Was Momma upset at the loss of her youngsters? Between calling she was busy catching bugs:



Indeed, she seemed to be able to caw, or mew, or whatever you call it, even with a bug in her mouth. I went to the computer and looked up Catbird Behavior. I read, on a Bird Web site, “The adults continue to feed the fledglings for up to 12 days after they leave the nest.“  Ah-ha! Likely as not those fledglings were around somewhere, hanging onto a branch or cowering on the ground. We didn’t hear any baby-bird sounds, but then there are lots of sparrows and others chattering away in the area, so one can’t be sure. There are experts who can sort it all out, but neither my wife nor I qualify. It was reassuring, at any rate, to assume that the fledglings were safe and sound, and getting regular deliveries of groceries. Here’s Momma with a hapless dragonfly. You can see the Catbird’s distinctive brick-colored ‘undertail coverts’, as that part is called. With their black caps and their discrete coverts, like a gentleman’s waistcoat under a jacket, the Catbird is a handsome bird:


The next day (July 20th), I went back to reconnoiter, and she was still there, watching me closely, and yelling at me (if that’s what it was):


I never saw the babies, but presumably they are now teenagers and off terrorizing the dragonflies on their own.



UPDATE:  Apropos of my ‘Come-and-get-it’ Catbird, a fellow member of the Mac Resource Forum, cbelt3, writes:

Catbirds are VERY intelligent. . .

Growing up, there was a catbird that would fly along with me as I walked to the bus stop at the top of the street, a third of a mile or so away (uphill one way). I taught that bird to whistle the start of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” And she taught her babies. And they taught their babies. . .

The last time I was there after Dad died, almost 30 years after the first Yankee Doodle Catbird, I walked up the street. Whistled a few bars. And was answered by a catbird whistling the tune. I sometimes wonder if those birds will be singing that tune forever more, confusing people all over the St. Louis area.

cbelt3 adds: “The suburb is Town and Country, Missouri. The year was 1967 when I first taught Mrs Bird to sing.”


PS: For a few more photos, and higher resolutions, see my Flickr album, HERE.

PPS: These photos were all taken with a Canon SX50 long-zoom camera.





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