Grab bag of May birds

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Brown-headed Cowbird at the top of the dawn redwood in our front yard.

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Gray Catbird at the edge of the red maple swamp out back.

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Common Yellowthroat takes off.

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Tree Swallow perches on the martin house “antenna.”

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Eastern Phoebe holds still for a moment.

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Red-winged Blackbird sings atop a maple at the edge of the swamp.

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Eastern Towhee, female, scuffling in leaves at the edge of the field.

Catbirds return

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A couple of days ago the catbirds came back.

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Shy at first, they are growing bolder – making acrobatic forays to the suet cakes and observing our behavior. We are quickly being classified as reasonably harmless food providers.

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This catbird is pictured out past the pond and big garden, at the beginning of the red maple swamp woods. They do seem to like this area, I remember from last year too, maybe because there are winterberries growing wild there.

I saw 5 or 6 catbirds yesterday. Maybe some are just passing through. Last year we had a couple of pairs that nested nearby and visited feeders regularly.

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I heard catbirds before I saw them. Their “catty mew” is distinctive.

If you’re convinced you’ll never be able to learn bird calls, start with the Gray Catbird. Once you’ve heard its catty mew you won’t forget it. Follow the sound into thickets and vine tangles and you’ll be rewarded by a somber gray bird with a black cap and bright rusty feathers under the tail. Gray Catbirds are relatives of mockingbirds and thrashers, and they share that group’s vocal abilities, copying the sounds of other species and stringing them together to make their own song.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology video: Catbird Mimicry

Catbirds sitting pretty

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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.

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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.”

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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.