In the catbird seat

Actually, the post should probably be titled, “in the catbird bed.”  Not that I want you to think that I was in bed with a catbird.  I wasn’t.  This morning, though, something happened while I was in bed.  It was one of those mornings where I knew I had to be up early, so I probably wasn’t sleeping all that soundly, anyway.  I was first conscious of being awake at 5:28; I may have been awake just before that, but I wasn’t quite aware of it, yet.  It was at that point that I looked over at the clock and shook my fist at the bird in the crepe myrtle outside.  Well, it was a fake shake.  I wasn’t actually awake enough to lift my arm to do it for real.  As I grumbled to myself about the loud bird singing in the dark, I realized something- it was a mimic.  It was singing all sorts of different tunes, switching them up constantly without repetition.  And then, as the pieces were clicking together in my muddled noggin, I heard it!  The scratchy mewww sound.  It was a catbird!

I’ve been keeping my eyes (though primarily my ears) out for catbirds, but this was the first one that I’ve heard in the neighborhood (and he wouldn’t shut up).  Now one of the reasons for my slow response time (aside from the fact that I wasn’t awake, yet) is that Gray Catbirds are varied songsters, very much like both the Brown Thrasher and the Northern Mockingbird.  All three of these birds (all in the family Mimidae) steal (or borrow, if you like things to sound more polite) sounds from other places and work them into their own repertoires.  The way to differentiate between the three birds boils down to the number of times that they repeat the phrases.  Brown Thrashers tend to repeat things twice; Gray Catbirds just once and Northern Mockingbirds more than twice.

Paying attention to how many times a particular sound (like a cell phone or car alarm sound) gets repeated will tell you which of those species is singing.  That repetition rate is also an important way for them to distinguish between competitors and individuals of other species.

Boughey, M.J. and N.S. Thompson.  1976.  Species specificity and individual variation in the songs of the Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) and Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis).  Behaviour 57:  64-90.

These researchers actually used playback experiments to see how the birds responded to the songs of heterospecifics (individuals of another species).  They found that Brown Thrashers will not react to the normal songs of Gray Catbirds.  However, if the researchers artificially doubled the repeats of notes in the song of the Catbird, the Thrashers did react!!  It’s not so much what they say, then, it’s how they’re saying it.

Now, as a separate point, I have to hit on the ‘catbird seat’ reference.  In general, to be ‘in the catbird seat’ means to be sitting pretty.  There are various explanations for the etymology of that phrase.  It’s worth doing a quick google search for the phrase, because some of the explanations are kind of interesting.  My point for referencing it, again, has to do with what happened after I left for work this morning.  Still glowing from the morning catbird experience, I walked out of my place and saw (and heard) a Brown Thrasher on the edge of the lawn, near some bushes.  Within 50 feet, a Northern Mockingbird flew across my path.  And there it was, the Mimic Thrush Trifecta!!!!  All this glamour before 7:15 in the morning!!!! I was in the catbird seat this morning.

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About thomasbiology

I'm an Associate Professor of Biology at Queens University of Charlotte with a background in animal behavior with an emphasis in bird song. I've got two secret goals with this blog (well, since I'm sharing them, they're not so secret): 1. To encourage people to look at the natural world around them- not just as a hiking destination, but to notice all the little things moving around them all the time; and 2. To show some of the science that relates to these little things moving around. There's some really fascinating research out there that so few people get to see.
This entry was posted in communication, mimics, repertoire, vocalizations. Bookmark the permalink.

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