Catbirds sitting pretty

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird inspects the hummingbird feeder.

These birds are curious, active, vocal, and sometimes comical. I watched one stand on the rim of a jelly dish, get surprised by another catbird swooping past and hop feet-first into raspberry jelly. Then it hopped around leaving jelly footprints on the wooden railing, sometimes stopping to peck little tastes off its feet. The other catbird landed and hopped along behind the jelly bird, tasting its footprints.

I like their sleek gray bodies and little black caps. They are named for one of their vocalizations, a mewing call.

Our catbirds – there are at least two pairs nesting nearby – like to peck on suet cakes and and feast on the “insect suet kibble” and dried berries and fruits in Cole’s Nutberry Suet Blend Bird Seed.

I knew of the existence of catbirds but I didn’t really know which birds they were until I started paying attention to our backyard and Seacoast birds in 2014 and identifying and recording species on eBird.org.

Gray Catbird

Hearing the word “catbird” always reminded me of the James Thurber story “In the Catbird Seat”

… which features a character, Mrs. Barrows, who likes to use the phrase. Another character, Joey Hart, explains that Mrs. Barrows must have picked up the expression from Red Barber, a baseball broadcaster, and that to Barber “sitting in the catbird seat” meant “‘sitting pretty,’ like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him.”

Gray Catbird

And…

According to Douglas Harper’s Online Etymological Dictionary, the phrase refers to the Gray Catbird and was used in the 19th century in the American South.

When used in the sense of a lookout, it can be considered a euphemism for the nautical term “crow’s nest” that is used on sailing ships.

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