The Catbird Seat

I am not a baseball fan, but this is apparently a rarely (or commonly, depending on your age) used expression for the one who is on top, or having the upper hand, or an advantage, coined by the baseball announcer Red Barber.

And what does this have to do with Backyard Biology, you might ask?

Well, this morning I saw the first catbird in the yard — as in, first of the year, and first ever in the backyard.

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Gray Catbirds are Mockingbird relatives, so you can expect to hear a lot of song mimicry from these birds as well.  See an earlier post on Catbirds for more  information about their mimicry.

The expression “the catbird seat” originally derives from the antagonistic behavior of male catbirds toward one another.  As they jockey for dominance, each tries to get the upper hand, by climbing higher in the tree while singing or posturing, until one of them runs out of room — and the winner of that contest has the “catbird seat”.

Nothing like a little peanut butter suet to start your day.

But on this morning, the only thing of interest was the peanut butter suet.  I’ll have to wait until more catbirds arrive to see this unusual behavior.

7 thoughts on “The Catbird Seat

  1. In central Texas, catbirds seem to prefer very dense thickets of underbrush, with lots of small, multi-branched trees and shrubs. They also appear to like being near small bodies of water, flowing streams and seasonal ponds. Nests are usually constructed in the most inaccessible locations, within dense bamboo thickets, grapevines, and such locations. Is this also typical of catbirds in Minnesota? Are catbirds specially subject to parasitism by nest invaders (cowbirds, etc.)? A bird so adept at mimicry might be expected to be a generalist in foraging, nestsite choice, etc. But catbirds in Texas seem to be very restricted in their choice of habitats. Any ideas why??

    • Hi Pat,
      Thanks for writing. In answer to your questions, yes, Catbirds in MN also build their nests in the middle of a thorny thicket, which would be very uncomfortable place for grad students studying their nest biology. It seems that males like to sing from the middle of these types of dense shrubbery as well, perhaps advertising what a great location it would be for a nest! Catbirds are NOT particularly susceptible to nest parasites, such as the Cowbirds. Like Robins, their blue eggs are quite different from the color of Cowbird eggs, and Catbirds are among those species that are Cowbird egg rejectors (also Robins, Bluejays, and Brown Thrashers). I think the mimicry is not so much an indicator of their generalist habits as it is an advertisement of what good singers and song-learners they are. Since the male tends to pick up more songs the older he gets, it might also indicate to a female that he is very “experienced!”

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