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For whom the catbird calls

My place was already lousy with cats. Now I have catbirds to contend with.

Those of you who follow this blog know that I currently have a 19 ½ year old tabby named Gus, who looks and sounds (and walks!) like Bernie Sanders in a ratty fur overcoat; and my daughter’s two cats: Phyllis, the evil half-Torti; and Mr. Pants, the world’s dumbest cat. It makes for some fine entertainment, like Big Brother meets Animal Planet.

Fine, that is, until you can’t change the channel or turn off the TV.

Speaking of TV, any cat owner knows birds and squirrels are the key to happy cats. They are Cat TV: a babysitter, a form of entertainment, a distraction. With the spring comes new content on Netflix, but more importantly, a whole new season just outside the windows and patio door.

We have bird feeders in the front yard and the back, as a nod to our avian friends but mostly to keep traffic high so the cats are occupied. If you’ve never seen a cat when a bird or a chipmunk or a squirrel is within pouncing range – never mind that it’s on the other side of a screen door or pane of glass – it’s a treat. They flatten out their bodies, almost impossibly, like their bones have vanished. Their tails swish in sadistic glee. And sometimes, just sometimes, they make a weird “meh-eh-eh-eh” sound that comes right from Hell itself.

The bird feeders have allowed me to identify a number of bird species that eluded me when I was in college. Let me explain. In my last semester of college I took a course called “Field Natural History.” It was a 3-hour class, once a week, that consisted of traipsing out into the wilderness of central Pennsylvania to learn to identify trees, wildflowers and birds. I took it for two reasons: One, I had a large credit load  my last semester because 11 years is enough time to spend getting a bachelor’s degree. And two, because in the nice weather it was common for female classmates to use the class to get some sun on their shoulders, arms and midriffs by wearing jeans (to protect their legs from scratchy brush and ticks) and bikini tops.

In one short semester I became proficient at spotting, recognizing, identifying and even classifying a variety of boobs common to the greater Lock Haven, Pennsylvania area. I was somewhat less dedicated (and, therefore, less proficient) with trees, wildflowers and especially birds.
I say especially birds because I am nearsighted and the way you would identify a bird is by looking in your Audubon Society field guide, which contained beautiful illustrations of every bird you could hope to see. And then you would slog through the woods in search of said birds, who were almost always high up in trees and/or fleeing their perch, soaring all herky-jerky, even higher than the trees. And these birds were not beautiful drawings; they were actual birds, and they were far away, and sometimes they were moving pretty fast. You see my dilemma.

In contrast, virtually every single boob was close by and, with few exceptions, not moving any faster than I was. 

When the time came for the final exam, we walked into Dr. Carbaugh’s classroom to find a gauntlet of 32 stations at which we needed to identify the specimen by name: 8 leaves; 8 wildflowers; and 16 stuffed birds. When I say stuffed, I don’t mean they had just gone through the Taco Bell drive-thru after Friday night beer and karaoke. I mean stuffed as in they were formerly alive birds that had passed, and subsequently had been attended to by a taxidermist of some kind. That kind of stuffed. Dead, dead-eyed, dead-looking birds.

Side note: Who collects and keeps – even for academic reasons – more than a dozen bird cadavers? Who does that?

You can appreciate my situation. These birds didn’t look like the illustrations. They were far too drab by comparison – more drab, I’m guessing, than they were while bird-blood coursed through their bird-veins. And I had never really seen them in the wild, in the flesh as it were, because of my eyesight. 

And: boobs.

So I completed the test, scoring a perfect 8 out of 8 in the tree section, and another perfect 8 in the wildflower section. And in the bird section, half the final exam grade, I weighed my options: struggle, guess and fail mightily; or go for the laugh.

So I wrote the words, “Dead Bird” 16 times on my paper and graduated with a “C” in the class. This is what happens when you have a straight “A” going into the final, and then earn a “50” on the test, along with the general scorn of your humorless professor.

Flash forward to today, and I can accurately identify robins and bluejays, cardinals (male and female!) and mourning doves, a variety of finches, a Carolina wren and, to the original point, a catbird. A catbird isn’t particularly unique or interesting looking. I mean, it’s ok for a bird if you like that kind of thing. But what it does have is an annoying call. It’s not a song, like other birds. Not a tweet or a whistle. It’s midway between a whine and a mew, or the approximate sound a cat might make if you happened to poke it with a stick. Listen here.

Catbirds live in the south and come up north in Spring to get it on. Like reverse-Spring Break. Then they nest, have kids, and leave before the first frost. 

We have two catbird couples who have moved in, one in the front and one in the back. They are noisy, cranky. The mommy catbirds are beginning to assemble nests. The daddy catbirds are another story. I came downstairs to get coffee the other day, and the two younger cats were sitting at the back patio door, rooted, motionless. I ignored them, went for the Keurig, then heard a click-thud. When I walked over with my coffee I saw a catbird in the lilac tree directly outside the door. He was about two feet from my nose. I could see him in startling detail, especially considering my former, limited perception of bird categories: dead and alive. 

As I was looking at him and thinking how interesting it was to see his rich, nuanced textures of grey and black, he lunged at my face and, of course, hit the glass patio door. Then he retreated, back onto the branch. 

He seemed unfazed. I was initially startled, but quickly amused. A minute or two later, he did it again. I thought to myself, “I could get used to this! If I were a cat, I would nap and watch stupid birds all day, too.”

I went on my way.

Since then my wife and I have seen him a dozen times and he continues to rush the patio door. I have a pretty thick skin and no particular empathy for this bird but almost no one dislikes my wife and she was having none of it. She was traumatized enough to resort to Googling “lunging catbird” or some such thing, and discovered that the bird wasn’t attacking us at all. He was being territorial, protecting his new home. He was charging his own reflection in the glass, attempting (albeit unsuccessfully) to frighten away the catbird he perceived to be moving in on his woman. (For all we know, she could already be with child!) 

I am now troubled by the understanding that this dense creature is going to continue to attack his reflection until he is a vegetable, or at least a closed head trauma patient. His wife will scream, because that’s what catbirds do, and his newborn – his kittenbird? – will have a moron for a father. It’s not my fault, I’m sure of that, but I feel complicit in letting it happen anyway. 

The more I think about it, the more I realize it’s an allegory. Stupidity exists everywhere, in every corner of the world, all the time. We suspect it, we know it, we believe it, but we are still impacted powerfully when we have to witness it. Stupidity in the shadows can be powerful, especially during an election year; but stupidity out in the open is way more painful to watch. 

Taking my coffee and walking into the basement to start another day of work relieves me from confronting the stupidity, even though I am freshly reminded of its existence. But the stupidity persists, unabated.

And the mommy catbird screams.


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