How to Know the Birds: No. 78, In the Catbird Seat
How to Know the Birds: No. 78, In the Catbird Seat
by Ted Floyd
What: Gray Catbird, Dumetella carolinensis
When: Tuesday, September 12, 2023
Where: Burlington, Middlesex County, Massachusetts
It was a gray, rainy, humid, misty, still, warm, overcast morning, and my flight back home wasn’t for a few more hours. So I went birding. Nothing fancy—an easy amble of just a couple blocks from my hotel over to a little ballfield along a busy boulevard in the Boston suburbs. Right away, I heard it—behind a fretwork of Virginia creeper, the familiar call of one of the most common birds in the region:
Dumetella carolinensis, of course, the gray catbird. It’s next to impossible to go birding around Boston in early September and not find a catbird. Even in a little tangle of weeds within earshot of I-95. Note: “find a catbird.” Not necessarily “see a catbird.” Because catbirds like to hang out in places like this:
There’s a saying, “in the catbird seat,” attributed to the 20th-century baseball broadcaster Red Barber, that contains a nice bit of basic bird biology. You see, catbirds like to have the upper hand. Catbirds like to know what’s going on. Catbirds like to be in control of the situation. They’re watching your every move from their redoubt in the thicket, You can’t even see the bird. You have no idea what bird—is it in fact a bird at all?—is making that sound like a ticked-off cat.
Unless you’re a birder.
I recently read a thought-provoking essay, “Superheroes,” by Yishai Blum, ABA 2023 Young Birder of the Year, about birders’ amazing abilities:
“We see every movement, we hear every sound, we know what everything is. We are omnipresent and omniscient. Our superpowers reveal things which are hidden, things which most people would ignore or overlook. Our superpowers help us understand what is going on around us when most people can only guess or give up. Our superpowers even help us speak to and understand animals.”
I spoke to the animal, the one that sounded like a cat, hiding in the tangle. I made a pishing sound, and the animal started to move around. I already knew it was a catbird, by its call, but now I could see it. Sort of. I saw a lanky, long-tailed, seemingly colorless, plausibly birdlike apparition in the wet, backlit shrubbery. And I could see that the catbird was plucking berries from the Virginia creeper, and that it was doing so to no apparent ill effect. I few years ago, I taste-tested a Virginia creeper berry. Kids: Don’t do this at home. Don’t do it anywhere, anytime, at all, ever. The berries contain a cocktail of oxalic acid and other chemicals toxic, and potentially even fatal, to humans. But not to catbirds and other frugivorous birds. The wisdom of Blum: We birders understand what is going around us; we can speak to and understand animals. Also this:
“Like any good superhero, we have gadgets that help us focus our superpowers. We have one that helps us see everything far away. We have one that helps us record information about everything. We even have one that helps us freeze time and space just so that we can look at everything again whenever we want.”
With a gadget that helps me record information about everything, I obtained this record of the call of the catbird:
With a bit of practice, it’s easy to recognize the catbird in this output. The bird “meows” starting around 0.6 sec., again at around 3.2 sec., and a third time at around 5.8 sec. In the upper panel (the sound spectrogram), the thin curves, stacked up atop each other, impart to the catbird’s call its familiar, whiny, nasal quality. In the lower panel (the oscillogram, or waveform function), we see that this is a “noisy” (technical term) recording, evidenced by the background signal even when the catbird isn’t calling. Part of that is light rainfall and the distant din of I-95, but take a close look: The background noise is characterized by very regular peaks or spikes, which are nicely matched by something going on in the 6kHz band in the upper panel.
To cut to the chase, that’s the song of Phyllopalpus pulchellus, a kind of cricket called the handsome trig. Here’s cleaner audio, from the exact same site, but a couple of days earlier:
Being in the catbird seat is cool, but being in the handsome trig seat is a whole nother ballgame. “Tied up in a croker sack,” Red Barber might have said.
I’m something of a cricketsong evangelist. It’s been that way with me ever since my Damascus Road experience with cricketsong close to a decade ago. I’m not making this up: At the sesquicentennial celebration of the Nuttall Ornithological Club, held Sept. 9, 2023, I presented at least as much data on crickets as on birds. But not as an alternative to, or rejection of, birds and birding and field ornithology. Rather, as a logical, perhaps even a necessary and essential, extension from our passion for birding and ornithology.
The Nuttall sesquicentennial was perhaps the grandest gala I’ve ever gone to. I mean, a hundred and fifty years. Wow. The Nuttall Ornithological Club is older than the American Ornithological Society (AOS). Indeed, it is the oldest ornithological society in the Americas. So, as you might have surmised, there was some amount of reminiscing during the sesquicentennial. But also not as much as you might imagine. Because there was also an overwhelming emphasis on change and progress, on things present and indeed things to come. All of the plenary addresses explored, in one way or another, this progressivist view of ornithology, but the one that really stood out for me was delivered by AOS President-elect Sara Morris.
Morris’s subject was, in the broadest sense, something everybody has known about for as long as humans have known anything: bird migration. Except this: We’ve learned so much in the past several decades, and there is so much more yet to discover. It’s a wonderful paradox. The things all around us are the things that summon us to be superheroes: sunrises and sunsets, rainbows and morning dews and the night sky. Never mind the Nuttall sesquicentennial, we’re fast approaching the quincentenary of Copernicus’s discovery of how sunrises and sunsets really work—and it still gives us goosebumps.
And even more so, because it’s right down here, here on Earth, in the unkempt edges of a ballfield in Boston, this: our knowledge, precious and powerful, of the call of the migratory catbird, barely seen; and our delight, exulted and frenzied, at the big song of a tiny cricket, invisible and impossible, as obvious and as real as can be.
A Technical Note
Various people have asked me how to learn cricketsong. First things first: I’m still new to this, still on the steep part of the learning curve. I don’t know much yet. But here are a few resources to get you started:
1. Wil Hershberger and Lang Elliott’s Songs of Insects website. This site is an outgrowth of Lang and Wil’s book The Songs of Insects, published in 2007 and now out of print. But the web version contains superb audio, along with critically important sound spectrograms, of nearly 100 commonly heard species. Also: photos, range maps, basic biology, and, perhaps most felicitously of all, fine nature writing throughout.
2. Thomas J. Walker and Theresa Marie Yawn’s Singing Insects of North America website. This is Wil and Lang’s website on steroids, with recordings of hundreds of species of crickets and especially katydids from the “Lower 48” U.S. states. The level of detail here is just incredible, and I have to ask: How did they ever find the time to do this??
3. iNaturalist. With just a bit of search engine discipline, you can quickly narrow your choices down to the common species around your home. Protip: Start by filtering to your home state or province, and then clicking on “Has Sounds.” Chances are, you’ll eventually find yourself tagging experts for help with some trickier IDs. And, speaking of experts…
4. Sooner or later, and I recommend sooner, you’ll want to get to know an actual expert. Or, at least, someone with more experience and knowledge than you have. I’m reluctant to print their full names (lest you start bothering them as much as I’ve bothered them), but folks like Scott, Nancy, Brandon, Norm, and Matt have done so much to help me take my appreciation for cricketsong to the next level.
5. Just do it. I’ve uploaded to iNaturalist audio of the orthopterans I audio-recorded during my several days on the grounds of the hotel outside Boston where the Nuttall 150th was held. Click here to listen to my recordings. Several of my IDs are provisional. Can you help me?
Ted Floyd is the longtime Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives with the ABA. Ted has written 200+ magazine articles and 5 books, including How to Know the Birds (National Geographic, 2019). He is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and has served on several nonprofit boards. Join Ted here for his semimonthly spot, “How to Know the Birds,” celebrating common birds and the uncommonly interesting things they do.
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