The Gray Catbird -July 2017

The Sound of Summer

by: Virginia Andrews

photography by: Virginia Andrews

It comes from the depths of every tangle, an emphatic call, a cry, almost a meow.

  But the sound, whether sharp as in “Cat!” or drawled as in “CAAaaatt,” is from no stray feline. Skulking in the bushes, perched at the edge of a snarl of viney cover, a seemingly demure gray bird is guarding his nest.

Catbirds are in the bird family Mimidae, which includes Thrashers and Mockingbirds. But instead of two-part repeated phrases, Catbirds sing a long stream-of-consciousness monologue of sounds one after another: whistles, chucks, squeaks, grunts, chatter, pure notes, and of course, the familiar mewing that warns intruders.

Each Catbird has a double syrinx, or voicebox. These two structures can be used independently of each other and at the same time, making two sounds at once. A Catbird can harmonize, so to speak, with itself. Its monologue is more improvisational than musical. Never quite the same, it can go on uninterrupted for as long as 10 minutes at a time: “Awr, er, ah, deedle, eh, chuck, tweet, squeeeek, em, click, kerr, shriek, wheeze, chip, peep, hoo, doodle,” and so on. The sounds are a little like baby talk, or an ill-tuned orchestra of two. They sing most actively early and late, though they can be heard at any time, day or night. Sometimes the male and female sing a soft duet between branch and nest.

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