The Catbird

Mrs Mabel Osgood Wright

Photograph taken by her husband James Osbourne.
Photograph taken by her husband James Osbourne.

INTRODUCTION

This is the third in a series of articles looking at the birds of America, This article reviews the Cat -bird. The historical accounts and the description of the birds, as in the first two articles, are taken from 'Bird craft' 1895, written by Mrs Mabel Osgood Wright a famed American author who was married to James Osborne { 1859-1934 } an English man. She became president of the Audubon Society of the State of Connecticut in 1898.

The beautifully illustrated plates {black and white} were produced by Louis Agassiz Fuertes {1874-1927}.

The Catbird Dumetella carolinensis

Dumetella carolinensis is the Grey Catbird and belongs to the Order of birds Passeriformes {perching birds} and placed in the family Mimidae. The present day scientific name of dumetella derives from Latin and indicates ' small birds of the thorn bush', while the specific name means of the ' Carolinas'.

The old scientific name for the bird was Galeoscopes which indicates a 'capped mockingbird' from the Latin galea 'helmet' and the Greek skoptein meaning to mock or scold. As far as conservation issues are concerned it is classed as a bird of 'least concern'.

" Yet how many people ignorantly abuse the cat bird!, because he has a good taste to like strawberries and cherries as well as we do, is he to be condemmed on that account? If he kills insects for us every waking hour from April until October, don't you think he is entitled to a bit of fruit in June/ The ox that treadeth out the corn is not to be muzzled, so that he can not taste it! "

" A good way to protect our strawberry patches and cherry trees from the cat bird, mocking bird and robin, is to provide them fruit that they like much better-the red mulberry!"

Netje Blanchen 1907.



Cat bird

Source

Mrs Wrights description and accompanying notes

The bird was known in the time of Mrs Wright as Galeoscoptes carolinensis.

Length-8.5 to 9 inches.

Male and female--Above clear deep slate. under parts lighter gray. Crown and tail black. vent rusty red. Bill and feet black.

Season--Early May to October and November.

Breeds from the Gulf states northwards to the Saskatchewan.

" next to the thrushes, no bird would be so much missed from the garden as the {to my mind misnamed} cat bird. For it is a garden bird that is best known here, although Wilson Flagg considers it more frequently a tenant of woods and pastures. I have found it nesting in all sorts of places, from an alder bush, over hanging a lonely brook, to a scrub apple in an open field, but never in deep woods, and it is when it is in the its garden home and in the hedging bushes of an adjoining field, that it develops its best qualities,-'let itself out so to speak'.

The cat bird in the garden are so tame that they will frequently perch on the edge of the hammock in which I am sitting, and when I move they only hop away a few feet with a little flutter.The male is undoubtedly a mimic, when he so desires to be, but he has an individual,delightful song, filled with unexpected turns and buoyant melody. The length of the song varies greatly, sometimes lasting uninterruptedly for an hour.

One strain is used as an introduction and as a constant refrain.'Prut! prut!coquillicot!'. the ejaculation 'prut! prut1' turns into the shrill 'Zeasy! zeasy!' when he is really angry or alarmed. His song is only second in its colloquial variety, to that of the brown thrasher, and it is sometimes difficult for a moment to distinguish between the two. he is particularly successful in imitating the whistle of a chat {itself a mimic and ventriloquist}, and has several times lured me by it, through bushes and briars, only to mock at me and call 'hey victory' in my face.

That the cat bird is a fruit thief, its best friends can not deny. But during the breeding season it feeds largely upon insects, and particularly upon many highly injurious kinds, then in the moth stage. Seizing them adroitly in the air and when near the ground, after the manner of the flycatcher.

I kept a cat bird {that had fallen from a nest} in a cage for many months, and became greatly attached to him. he was perfectly fearless and would fly about the room freely, and run about the floor with the rapidity of a mouse. frequently he would perch upon my head, or flit up and dexterously knock the ash of O--------'s cigar to attract his attention. he had a great dislike for newspapers, and if O---- tried to read when he was at liberty, he would invariably perch on the top sheet, thus bending it over and stopping the proceedings, and then utter a triumphant 'zeasy! Zeasy!'

It seems strange that there should be any difference of opinion about this merry, friendly bird. Mr, George H Ellwanger, near whose window one sang early every morning writes, " Nothing could be more delightful than his opening mating song that begins in a dulcet undertone;did I not know from experience his long drawn crescendo and the frenzy of the female a perfect Hungarian 'Czardeus'. pelting him with stones, a pile of which I keep within reach, stops him, as it does my morning nap"

Granting this even, it simply proves the wit of nature, to set this merry, rippling jester, the whirlwind of delightful mockery, as a foil, a companion to the thrushes with their spiritual melodies. Was it not by the rendering of such contrasts that Shakespeare mirrored Nature in every phase?"


Catbird

Source

Ode to the catbird

"He sits on a branch of yon blossoming bush,

This madcap cousin of the robin and thrush,

And sings without ceasing the whole morning long;

Now wild , now tender, the wayward song.

that flows from his soft, gray fluttering throat;

But often he stops in his sweetest note;

And shaking a flower from the blossoming bough;

Drawls out 'Mi-eu, mi-ow'.

The catbird takes its common name from its well known note 'mi-eu, Mi-ow' which it produces as would a half grown kitten. formerly this species was classed with the flycatchers. Alexander Wilson changed it to the Thrushes. In doing so he stated " As he nether seizes his prey on the wing, has none of their manners,{flycatchers} feeds principally on fruit, and seems to differ so little from the Thrushes, I think he more properly belongs to the latter tribe than to any other genus we have. His bill, legs and feet, place and mode of building, the color of his eggs, his imitative notes, food and general manners, all justify me in removing him from the genus"

Coves in his 'Key to North American Birds' places him in the family Turdidae, comprised of the Thrushes and the sub-family Miminae, composed of the Mocking thrushes.


Only a song

" Out in the apple tree, swinging and singing,

Swinging and singing its heart's jubilee.

sits a catbird in modesty clinging.

deep in the foliage where no eyes can see,

List to his roundelay, rippling and ringing.

Hour after hour, the green branches through,

Showers of song o'er sad hearts thus he's flinging,

Cheering and healing while hidden from view"

By--Cora Mae Cratly

Of the song of the catbird, Audubon says--" It is comprised of many of the gentler trills and sweeter modulations of our various woodland choristers, delivered with apparent caution, and with all the attention necessary to enable the performer to please the ear of his mate. Each cadence passes on without faltering, and if you are acquainted with the song of the birds he so sweetly imitates, you are sure to recognize the manner of the different species."

" When the warmth of his loving bosom engages him to make a choice of the notes of our best songsters, he brings forth sounds as mellow as those of the Thrasher and Mocking bird. These medleys, heard in the calm and balmy hours of the retiring day, always seem to possess double power, and he must have a dull ear, indeed, and with little relish for the simple melodies of nature, who can listen to them without delight"

Part of the study of birds, in the early day ornithologist's writings, seemed to be an examination of the dead birds' stomach contents which enabled them to record the food they had eaten. Dr.Sylvester S Judd who examined two hundred and thirteen of the catbirds' stomachs stated that " Forty per cent of their food consisted of animal matter, and fifty six percent of vegetable matter. Ants beetles, caterpillars and grasshoppers constituted three fourths of animal food, the remainder being made up of bugs ,miscellaneous insects and spiders. One third of the vegetable food consisted of such fruits that are cultivated, and the rest was mostly of wild fruits, including cherries, dogwood, sour gum, elderberries, green brier , spice berries, black alder, sumac and poison ivy."

Dr. Judd concluded his report by stating ---By killing these birds, their services as insect destroyers would be lost, so the problem is to keep both birds and our fruit. experiments conducted by this division show that catbirds prefer mulberries to strawberries and cherries, hence it may be inferred that the two latter crops may be protected by planting the prolific Russian mulberry, which, if planted in hen yards or pig runs will afford excellent food for the hens and pigs, besides attracting the birds away from more valuable fruit. Wild cherry, buckthorns, dogwood, wild grapes and elder should be encouraged by the farmer who wishes to escape the depredations of the birds and still receive their benefits.



Grey Catbird

Taken in the Brendan T Byrne State Forest New Jersey original picture was posted to Flickr .com by Snowmanradio
Taken in the Brendan T Byrne State Forest New Jersey original picture was posted to Flickr .com by Snowmanradio | Source

Nest, eggs and young of the catbird.

In the country they tend to build in the wildest woods and the most cultivated districts, occupying any bush or tree that is accessible. Thickets along rivers, creeks, canals and ponds as well as brier patches and thick clumps of bushes along the roads and about the outskirts of timberland are the most frequented localities for this species. In the town they are nearly as abundant as they are in the country. The bushes and low trees of the garden and lawn, together with shade trees of the streets afford plenty of nesting sites.

The position of the nest when situated in a bush, is usually supported beneath. The sides are supported by a number of stems. The exterior has numerous projecting sticks, which rest upon the small twigs and often interlace with them, making them very secure. Sometimes the materials of the foundation or base are so interwoven with branches or twigs which sustain it, that it is impossible to remove the nest unless you tear it from its supports.

When the nest is built in a tree it is places in a fork formed by the limbs and may be three or four inches in diameter, though usually much smaller, and is supported about the circumference by branches or twigs, or is saddled upon a large limb, or a number of small ones, Its distance from the ground when built in a bush is commonly about three to four feet. When in a tree it rarely exceeds ten feet although occasionally it may be higher than this.

Catbird with young

Source
Taken from the  Illustrations of the nests and eggs of birds of Ohio {Howard Jones 1886
Taken from the Illustrations of the nests and eggs of birds of Ohio {Howard Jones 1886

Nest and eggs of the catbird continued

The foundation of the average nest consists of dead twigs of the various trees and weeds in the neighbourhood. The coarsest of materials in the first part of the foundation and as the work progresses smaller and shorter twigs are employed. the superstructure is composed of similar, but, finer material, together with dried leaves, bark and the tendrils of grapevine and rootlets. grapevine bark in long strips is often used in abundance, and so woven and braided together as to form a basket of considerable strength.

The lining is made of light coloured and dark brown or black rootlets, thickly matted together and extending to the rim. About towns and farm houses, string, rags, paper.wool,cotton, feathers and other substances are sometimes used. And when suitable rootlets can not be had grasses and downy weed fibres are employed for the lining.

The clutch or set of the first nest of the year consists of four to five eggs, the second usually is made up of just two or three. They are dark green in colour but sometimes on rare occasions white eggs are encountered. they are entirely distinguishable by their colour to any other birds eggs.

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Comments 8 comments

D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 3 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author

Hi DDE, this particular bird causes divided opinions especially among fruit growers. Glad you enjoyed the hub and found it interesting. Always good to hear from you. Best wishes to you.


DDE profile image

DDE 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

Incredible, new to me and so interesting, a well researched hub and I have learned so much about this lovely bird.


D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 3 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author

avianovice Hi hows it going in Stillwater ? thank you very much for your appreciated comments . Best wishes to you.

Dont Taze Me Bro Hav'n't heard the poem you quoted. thank you for taking the time to read and for leaving your comments. best wishes to you.

tillsonitan, You are so kind. The ode to the catbird came from another of my old books on ornithology Writer unknown. thank you for your appreciated comments. Best wishes to you.

Fossillady nice to hear from you. thank you Kathi for your kind and welcome comments.Best wishes to you.


D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 3 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author

avianovice Hi hows it going in Stillwater ? thank you very much for your appreciated comments . Best wishes to you.

Dont Taze Me Bro Hav'n't heard the poem you quoted. thank you for taking the time to read and for leaving your comments. best wishes to you.

tillsonitan, You are so kind. The ode to the catbird came from another of my old books on ornithology Writer unknown. thank you for your appreciated comments. Best wishes to you.

Fossillady nice to hear from you. thank you Kathi for your kind and welcome comments.Best wishes to you.


D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 3 years ago from Lancashire north west England Author

avianovice Hi hows it going in Stillwater ? thank you very much for your appreciated comments . Best wishes to you.

Dont Taze Me Bro Hav'n't heard the poem you quoted. thank you for taking the time to read and for leaving your comments. best wishes to you.

tillsonitan, You are so kind. The ode to the catbird came from another of my old books on ornithology Writer unknown. thank you for your appreciated comments. Best wishes to you.

Fossillady nice to hear from you. thank you Kathi for your kind and welcome comments.Best wishes to you.


Fossillady profile image

Fossillady 3 years ago from Saugatuck Michigan

Awesome hub about the catbird, I can always pick them out by their less than lovely squawk. Never the less, I think they are rather tame and not as skiddish as some in my presence. Well done, Kathi


tillsontitan profile image

tillsontitan 3 years ago from New York

This is great. The common catbird finally getting it's due. You've done a lovely job of working with Mrs. Wright's writing, yet again. Did you write the "Ode" or was that from the book? Nicely done either way. I loved the pictures too!

Voted up, useful, and interesting.


aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

Even though the original piece shows its age, it is nonetheless, still as wonderful, colorful, and refreshing as it was when first published. I enjoyed this immensely.

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