When I was just 8 years old I would often hide away in my secret fort tucked back in a vacant wooded lot. I remember an astonishing moment there when I witnessed a flock of gray catbirds land high up in an oak tree. They rested for only a minute and then scattered to the spring wind. Only one remained and flew down from the high perch and landed on the roof of my humble fort.
The catbird circled the fort several times. His tail bounced in nervous curiosity and his eyes burned bright with a foreign intelligence. Though only a young boy, it didn't take much knowledge to assume that it may have just arrived from the far south. I lay on my back in the fort peering up through the open slatted roof and watched the soft hues change shape and color in the May sky. Had I just witnessed this bird's return to its breeding site?
Upon returning a few days later, I found the bird singing on a low branch above the nearly impenetrable thicket surrounding my secret fort. The fort acted as the perfect blind, and I went on to observe the catbird pair with its mate, build a nest and raise its young. Ever since, the shy but vocal catbird has captivated my attention.
Consequently, I am eagerly anticipating the arrival of gray catbirds and listening carefully for their familiar song each day. Catbirds usually make an appearance about the second week of May. They will have traveled thousands of miles when they do get here. Their wintering range extends from the Gulf Coast into Mexico and Central America.
Last year, I had a pair nest in the cluster of spruce along my garden. Like the bird at my fort, this male sang quietly whenever I approached. I knew he had a nest hidden there because he also gave the meow call, which inspired the bird's name. Catbirds give the meow call when alarmed. I noticed the pair flying to and from the spruce, making the nesting site obvious to me.
I had the urge to be a good field naturalist and belly crawl into the spruce to observe. Unfortunately, this might have caught the attention of my neighbors, raising into question my own behavior. There are other ways to see catbirds though.
They are very fond of grape jelly and will visit any jelly feeder on a daily basis. Catbirds will devour raisins, sliced strawberries and suet with fruit in it, too. In fact, fruit makes up the bulk of their winter diet and almost half of it during the summer.
Although watching catbirds at the feeder cannot compare to actual field observation, it sure is much more convenient. I don't think I could fit into a kid's fort now, and if I could what are the chances of it transcending into a bird blind?
Sometimes the simple secretes of nature are only revealed to the very young.
Robert Tougias is a Colchester birding author. He is available for presentations and will answer your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org