August 08, 2023

Emmy bird closeup



“Some people go to priests, others to poetry. I go to my friends.”

-Virginia Woolf


One of the things I like the most about walking in the early morning is listening to the birds.  They are much more active and vociferous just after dawn than they are the rest of the day.  There’s something cheery about their songs and calls that is uplifting.  Most of the calls I hear, I can’t associate with any particular bird – I just don’t know enough about ornithology.  I can pick out their separate tunes, but I have no idea what the birds making them look like.  I hear birdsongs and see birds (much more often the former than the latter), but almost never together.  There is one birdcall that is distinctive enough that I know it comes from one particular kind of bird – the Emmy bird.

I gave the Emmy bird her name because, to my ear, her call sounds like she’s saying, “Emmy!”  My granddaughter’s name is Emily, so, of course, that left an impression.  I hear them calling out from late spring to late summer and when I hear them, I always answer with an “Emmy!” in the closest imitation I can manage.  Today is no different.  We talk to each other in the cool of the early morning twilight as Waldo saunters down the path, doing with his nose what I’m doing with my ears.  I just didn’t know what kind of bird the Emmy bird is – until this week.

Just the other day, Waldo and I were walking near the railroad cut, he in his usual position at the end of the leash and I in the rear, discussing whatever “Emmy!” means with the birds.  A flutter of movement caught my eye and a bird landed atop a branch not six feet from me.  “Emmy!” she said.

“Emmy!” I replied and we carried on a short conversation of dubious content and then she flew off into the brush.  It all happened before I could pull out my phone and get a good picture.  I did get one, but it was more of a “bigfoot” picture – a blurry smudge of color against a leafy background (now that I think of it, I find that description amusingly portentous – my nickname for my granddaughter is “Sasquatch”).  But I got a damn good look at her.  She had a solid gray breast with a black cap on her head and a pointy beak that’s longer than a sparrows.  That was good enough that I could find her on Google – she’s a gray catbird.

Gray catbirds are renowned for their unique voice – a mewing, it’s called, because someone thinks it sounds like a cat.  I speak cat, as well as catbird, and I’ve had long conversations with many a stray feline.  What the catbirds do doesn’t sound anything like what a cat does, to my ears.  Maybe my proficiency in cat has carried over to being able to speak to the catbirds, though.  I’ve noticed many times that they follow me down the trail for a ways, as I talk to them.  Maybe one of them finally became comfortable enough with Waldo and me to finally show themselves.  I’ve seen catbirds on two other occasions this past week, after that first sighting, so maybe the ice has been broken.

Catbirds make other sounds as well as their mewing.  In fact, like mockingbirds and thrashers, they imitate other bird calls.  The mewing they do is often used while courting and defending their territories.  Maybe I have somehow stumbled across a good catbird pickup line and that’s what they’re responding to?

According to Google, catbirds have varying personalities, sometime introverted and sometimes extroverted.  With gentle persuasion, people have been known to gain their trust and develop a friendship with these birds.  Gray catbirds like to sit on a high perch, hidden in thick foliage, and is the source of the phrase, “sitting in the catbird seat,” meaning sitting in a protected advantageous position.  Their genus name, Dumetella, means “small thicket” and is a nod to its preferred habitat of deep thickets and shrubs.  Which explains why I haven’t, until recently, been able to see one.  I am so very grateful that one bird’s inherent friendliness was great enough to spur it to swoop down and say “Emmy” to me, eyeball to eyeball.

Now that I can put a face to the birds I “Emmy” with, my walks with Waldo through the forest are enhanced.  I feel the wildlife, and Mother Nature herself, has become not only used to and accepting of our presence here in the bosom of life, but also welcoming, greeting us as old friends.  I find that somehow reaffirming, like we belong here.

Which, of course, we do.


In her catbird seat.


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