Wisconsin, where I live, is known for inclement weather. Winter seems to last about six months here in Madison.
Then there is a brief spring, followed by three months of warm, GLORIOUS SUMMER, which tapers off in a wine-and-gold two-month autumn until snowflakes fly around November 1.
Since summer does not last forever, I spend as much time as possible in my backyard. When not mowing or weeding, I sit in a chair, reading a book and sipping something. I glance up now and then to appreciate how lovely it all is.
A black locust towers over our house. The tree is in the front yard, but I can see its top, over the roof, from the backyard. It’s thing of beauty and a joy forever, especially with its green leaves yellowed by the afternoon sun.
There is a sound track, too. My favorite part is the catbird’s call.
This small gray bird, Dumetella carolinensis, flits about the backyard, perching in one of our tall spruces, or sometimes briefly in our forsythia, a red cedar, or my wife’s special Montmorency cherry tree.
“But tell me, O New Favorite Writer, how do you know your catbird’s a he? Couldn’t it be a she?”
No, Dear Reader. He could not. Which is something I did not know until I did a bit of research. It’s surprising what you can learn by writing a blog. More on catbird vocal dimorphism below.
For now, suffice it to say that Mister Catbird is a phenomenal singer and mimic, much like his Southern cousin Br’er Mockingbird.
And he does all his vocalizing from a kind of throne. Though our common robins, sparrows, and cardinals use the same trees and bushes, when Mister Catbird perches there, it becomes a special thing.
The Catbird Seat
It’s known as “the catbird seat.”
The Facts on File Dictionary of American Regionalisms says, “To be in the catbird seat means ‘to be sitting pretty, to be in a favorable position.’” The book, like other sources, calls it a 19th-century Southern Americanism but admits in a roundabout way that nobody ever heard of it until 1942, when James Thurber publicized Red Barber’s use of it.
James Thurber (1894-1961) was a cartoonist, writer, humorist, journalist and playwright—a literary icon whose work appeared often in the New Yorker. Today he is mostly remembered for his short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” but during his lifetime he published many stories, as well as humorous essays, memoirs, and cartoons. One of his stories is called “The Catbird Seat.”
I won’t give you any spoilers, in case you’d like to read this now somewhat dated, but still entertaining, story. What concerns us here is how it got its title. Its main character, a file clerk named Mr. Martin, is disturbed by a co-worker, Mrs. Bellows, who sprinkles her office repartee with a variety of odd expressions.
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 (1908-1992), “the Old Redhead,” was a sports announcer who over a long career called major league baseball games for the Cincinnati Reds, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the New York Yankees. A native of Columbus, Mississippi, he spoke slowly, with a soothing southern drawl, countrified and unflappable even when describing the hottest action.
Did Barber ever use the phrase “in the catbird seat” before reading Thurber’s 1942 story attributing it to him? That must remain one of those enigmas lost in the mists of time.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the catbird seat as “a superior or advantageous position.” I guess that’s about right. “He’s sitting in the catbird seat” means he’s got no worries—however things turn out, he’s covered.
If you’re in the catbird seat you can sit aloof and entertain yourself with pretty songs while you wait for others to find out the bad news.
Our friend Mister Catbird perches, sometimes hidden by dense foliage, but always in a place where he can supervise the whole world. And he comments.
The Catbird’s Song
He sings one of the most complex songs of any bird. It’s a long, polysyllabic thing, a startling series of whistles, squeaks, squawks, and burbles. It lasts several seconds and is then repeated, only with its elements re-arranged.
That’s how I know it’s a he, Dear Reader. Because the catbird I’m hearing is not singing a normal “catbird” song, which is relatively brief and simple. Nor is he chirping the single meow-like syllable that gives him his name.
The complexity of Mister Catbird’s call comes from the fact that he’s imitating a series of other birds’ calls. Ornithologists think this is simply a way for a male catbird to show off, attracting the female of the species to his rich repertory of bird sounds. It’s like a guy who gets up at a party and rattles off a series of impressions—John Wayne, Dean Martin, Jimmy Cagney (“You dirty rat!”), Cary Grant (“Judy Judy! Judy!”) and on and on.
Only Dumetella carolinensis is actually a talented mimic, unlike our friend at the party.
Do yourself a favor, Dear Reader, and take five minutes to watch and listen to this YouTube video sponsored by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in which Greg Budney, former audio curator of the Macauley Library, shows examples of catbird mimicry.
After hearing all the calls the catbird masters in Budney’s video, you may imagine what it sounds like when they’re all run together by Mister Catbird in my backyard.
It makes me think of a general issuing detailed orders to the troops.
It sounds like an NFL quarterback barking a complex cadence before the ball is snapped—half of the syllables to inform his teammates about the play, the other half only to fool the opponents.
It’s the auditory equivalent of the gestures a third-base coach uncorks between pitches. You’ve seen it if you’ve ever been to a ballgame. He pats his left shoulder, rubs his elbow, taps his foot, shakes his head, doffs his cap, etc.—so his teammates will know what to do but the other guys won’t figure it out.
Even though I know Mister Catbird’s song is just an act to impress Miz Catbird, I still can’t shake the feeling that his baffling cascade of sounds must mean something.
He is, after all, in the catbird seat.
One could do worse than be a catbird.
But if it’s not in your power to be a catbird, the next best thing would be to recognize when you happen to find yourself in the catbird seat.
Enjoy it while it lasts.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer