A View from the Hill: Mockingbird in the catbird seat

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The editor told me this is the annual bird issue. I hope everyone else got the memo.

It is highly appropriate for this newspaper to have an annual bird issue since it’s named after the phoenix, a magnificent, ostrich-sized bird that probably never actually existed except in the minds of myth makers and whoever designed Portland’s city seal.

Andrew MarstersBut if it did exist it was able to live 972 times as long as a human and recreate itself after disaster, which is why it’s on the city seal since Portland has resurrected itself four times after devastating fires.

Whew. So, bird issue. 

In March 2020 I dedicated my column to the marvelous northern mockingbird, an iPod with wings. This avian wonder can upload up to 200 songs learned from other birds, sirens, babies, and cellphones rings and belt them out from the treetops. 

I wrote then: “I can listen to these skinny, gray birds endlessly as they blather on about nothing from their perches on low branches or light posts.” Their joyful nests always make me smile.

In April of 2021 I wrote about the gull, mistakenly often referred to as a “seagull.” They are much maligned as rude guests at a French fry feast and indiscriminate poopers, yet beloved and iconic at the same time. I defended the gull.

“They’re not looking for trouble,” I wrote. “Just survival.”

But this spring I’ve been listening for the joyful song of the gray catbird. This name must be very confusing to a 5-year-old. Catbird? A bird that looks like a cat, or a cat that flies like a bird?

Neither. It is called a catbird because when not joyfully singing, it will mew like a cat with a chest cold. Stan Tekiela, author of the “Birds of Maine” field guide, describes this handsome, slate-gray midsize bird as “a secretive bird that the Chippewa Indians named Bird That Cries With Grief Due To Its Raspy Call.”

The catbird arrives in Maine in April, which is the best time to see it because the leaves haven’t come in yet. Look for a dark gray character wearing a little black beanie and often hunching its back. Once there is foliage, it’s tough to spot the catbird. 

When it mews you will look around for a cat. When it sings you will look around for a mockingbird. Hiding in thick shrubs, it does not crave attention the way its cousin the mockingbird does.

That’s probably why, unlike the mockingbird or the phoenix, it is largely ignored in literature and song. 

Undoubtedly the greatest boost to the mockingbird’s reputation came from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” when Miss Maudie says, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy … they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

Exposure to the mockingbird starts early in childhood. “Hush little baby, don’t say a word,” sings Mother Goose, “Papa’s going to buy you a mockingbird.” I found 23 mentions of the mockingbird in poetry; only six for the catbird.

That’s not fair. Sure, the mockingbird knows how to get attention, not just by singing, but also through its very public mating behavior. “Very animated, male and female perform elaborate mating dances by facing each other, heads and tails erect,” according to “Birds of Maine.” “They run toward each other, flashing white wing patches.”

Big deal. So it’s not a showoff. Consider these catbird facts from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

A single song from the gray catbird, composed entirely by imitating the songs of other birds, may go on without repetition for 10 minutes. Each song is an entirely original compilation.

It sings softly when near its nest or if there is an intruder nearby, but belts out the tunes when proclaiming its territory. Its cousin doesn’t show such discretion.

The oldest known catbird lived for nearly 18 years. The oldest mockingbird was only 14. Take that, mockingbird.

And now in this column, the mockingbird has stolen all the attention from its cousin. Typical. I didn’t intend that. I’ll take the shy retiring type any time.

So this spring celebrate the catbird. Next year, who knows? Cowbird?

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning Maine journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.