June 20th, 2009 - In the Catbird's Seat

We have a family of catbirds living in the rosebushes in the backyard. We've been watching, I should really say "listening" to their progress for the last few weeks. They have this massive vocabulary of catbird sounds, words, and songs, and use it profusely. I wish I knew what it all means. I do know what some of it means, as I learned a bit as I was getting phwapped in the head for being too close to the nest yesterday. "Phwapped" is a pretty good adjective for it because just as I was getting my camera to focus on the babes, the parent swooped down unheard by me and phwapped me on the head with a wing, like Mother Superior giving me a ruler to the back of the hand. He or she also did not have very pretty things to say at the time, or so I gathered by the intonation.

I wasn't sure where the nest was at first, I thought it was in our neighbor's tree, as I had always noticed a lot of catbird activity there. However Sharon said she saw the five baby birds sitting a fairly low nest in the rosebush when she was getting into the car yesterday, and when I opened the back door of the house to let the dog out I noticed both the bird parents driving a squirrel out of the pear tree like lead caballeros on a cattle drive. The squirrel was outmatched and out manned, and beat a hasty, rueful retreat. The birds then took up lookout perches one in the tree and one on the end of the fence on top of the abandoned suet feeder, and recommenced dissertations at a high decibel level.

I had always heard the idiom "sitting in the catbird's seat" and have used it myself a few times. I was thinking it didn't apply in this case, at least from the babies view. "The catbird seat" is an idiomatic phrase used to describe an enviable position, often in terms of having the upper hand or greater advantage in all types of dealings among parties.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded usage occurred in a 1942 short story by James Thurber titled 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 (the famed baseball radio announcer) and that to Barber "sitting in the catbird seat" meant 'sitting pretty,' like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him." Further usage can be found in P. G. Wodehouse's 1958 novel Cocktail Time: "I get you. If we swing it, we'll be sitting pretty, 'In the catbird seat.'"
According to Douglas Harper's Online Etymological Dictionary, the phrase refers to the Gray Catbird and was already used in the 19th century in the American South. However, another clue to the history of the word may come from the Australian bowerbird of the family Ptilonorhynchidae, also known as the catbird. This bird is known for the extraordinary lengths that the males will go to in order to build a bower to attract a mate. Some birds will assemble several hundred colored rocks or shells, arranging them in a remarkable and artistic display, in order to build the "seat" atop which his mate will eventually be enthroned. Sounds a little more plausible than Red Barber, at least from a naturalist perspective.

So it seems the parents really get the catbird seat, but to the five babes stuck in a stick & plastic scrap nest in a thorny brush three feet off of the ground, the term doesn't seem exactly ideal.
I guess it works both ways; they have a thorned fortress that few would dare enter, watched by gargoyles on high, but they also have to deal with fledging out of it. Life is just never easy.

Today we came back from a dog walk and to our surprise, the nest was empty. The parents were still around, being watchful and possessive, but had slackened off a bit. As we gave things a closer look, we saw a young catbird flitting around the bushes, seemingly way too big to be one of the same birds that was in the nest yesterday, but stranger things have happened.
It now looks like that is the way things have gone, as through the window I hear the shrill call of birds with a higher pitch than the parents. Oh, those darn kids, they grow up so fast...

No comments: