Thursday, June 28, 2007

"Our" Catbird is Back

Our catbird is back.

Actually that's not entirely true. For one thing he is not really "our" catbird. Any more than any other of the wild outdoor animals - birds, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits - are "ours". But because he shows up every year at around the same time we do call him "ours".

Which brings up the second non-fact in my first sentence. This "return of the catbird" has been going on for about thirty years or so, give or take. Obviously, given the life expectancy of a bird - "Small birds, such as warblers and sparrows, probably live on average only a few years..." - it is most likely not the same friend-with-feathers that we see each year. But again - same time, same place, same bird.


Once again a Catbird is making our property one of the places that he spends a significant amount of time this summer.

Only twice in the thirty years have we actually figured out where he and his family - because before the summer ends there will be a wife and kids - actually live. And each time it was a different location.

One year, probably around mid-August or so, I was pruning one of the thick, leafy bushes that separate our back and side yards. Normally I try to keep this particular undergrowth at around my height, six foot five. But this year, for whatever reason, I had let it go since spring so the shrub had gotten to be about eight feet tall and the new growth had plenty of time to thicken up.

Mars had given me some new pruning shears with handles that, with a twist, telescoped to double their normal length, thus allowing me to take on tasks like the one in front of me. Using the longer version of the tool is a little hard on my arms since the center of gravity shifts and I have to operate it most of the time at full arm's length. But I figure that it's pretty good exercise for an area of my body that never had much of a workout until I discovered the joys of destructive gardening.

I had just started snipping away when I heard the distinctive cat-like "mew" call.

I hear the whispering voice of spring,
the thrush's trill, the catbird's cry.
Oliver Wendell Holmes

But unlike previous iterations of the caterwauling, the sound was not emanating from an invisible source on-high but rather from the immediate proximity of the slashing metal blades. And the tone was different - much more threatening. Also there seemed to be more than one speaker - although with the thick leaves I never really saw anyone. I did however hear the flapping of wings.

I stopped immediately and went inside to tell Mars about my accidental discovery. The bush remained un-pruned for the duration.

Another year my neighbor John told me that he thought the catbird had taken residence in his ten foot tall Rhododendron that stood against the fence between our properties. His cocker spaniel Casey had apparently wandered into that piece of shrubbery and been verbally chased away by the maliciously mewing militant, but thankfully not swooped at or otherwise physically abused. John likewise left that nesting area untrimmed for the remainder of the growing season.

The year after each of these events and on every subsequent summer I have checked these two bushes for signs of catbird life. But there hasn't been any. All we get instead are constant catcalls and occasional sightings as the small gray birds drink at our bird bath, try to steal our blueberries, or perch on the various manmade objects on our property.

Which leads me to believe that, unlike for example the falcon that nests annually in the uppermost regions of my former employers home office, the catbird is not returning to its ancestral living quarters. Each catbird might in fact be completely new to the area.

The Behavioral Psychologist Abraham Maslow theorized that human actions were driven by what he called a "Table of Needs".

Level # Type of Need - Examples
Level 1 Physiological Thirst - sex, hunger
Level 2 Safety Security - stability, protection
Level 3 Love and Belongingness - love and be loved, and gain a sense of belonging
Level 4 Esteem - Self-respect, the respect others
Level 5 Self-actualization - To fulfill one's potentialities

I would think that all animals are driven by at least the first two levels and are hard-wired to sense pretty quickly when they come upon a situation that satisfies them. That is probably what brings a Catbird to our yard every year - either with or without a genetic sense of place.

With lots of thick, high bushes and trees, a refilled-daily birdbath, fresh local berries and bugs, and no predatory pets even a first time visitor must instantly feel like he is truly in the catbird seat.

And providing that environment for "our" annual boarder, including listening to his acoustically abrasive scolding and complaining, is probably one of the ways that we get ourselves to level three. And beyond.

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