This morning, I stepped outside to collect the paper. Down the front steps, the cement walk was cool and rough beneath my bare feet. Pushing the gate open, I bent to wrap fingers over the paper in its thin plastic bag, when I heard them — the soft call drifted over my shoulder. Easily, I located the pair of slim gray shapes perched in the Linden’s arching branches. They are so patient and clever and curious, and our routine is so familiar, that by the time I’d gone back through the house, stopping in the kitchen along the way, they were already waiting for me once I’d reached the side door. Fluttering from the burning bush, each bird accepted two raisins in turn, then off they flew, skimming through the air like shadow.
It’s Catbird season.
Here in the Northeast, Catbird season is variable. This year, it began on May 1, when I heard the vibrant collection of notes and phrases spiral out over the cool, morning air. Although deprived of this song since the previous Autumn, it is one I know so well, I recognize it immediately. It is a song that rises and falls in lilting tones, peppered with asides and chatter, as well as the nasal mews that lend the bird its name. It is a song both lovely and indecipherable.
I have had an affinity for the Gray Catbird since my youth. In the semi-wild backyard of my childhood home, they moved about the underbrush, singing and commenting, foraging for insects amongst the leaf mold beneath the spireas and forsythias. It seemed they called my name, accented in their wild and avian tongue — Carrie. But it wasn’t until more recently that I began to forge a more personal relationship with these birds.
Eight years ago, while turning over the garden beds in our side yard, I became aware that a particular Catbird observed me from a little red maple. I worked the soil with my hand shovel, and he sang interest. As I moved along, he eventually lit upon the churned earth and plucked out the fat, white grubs. He paid such attention to my activities, and I so enjoyed his company, that when the grubs diminished, I took a chance on slipping into the house to find something that might prolong his visit. How I decided on raisins, I cannot recall, but they were a good choice. Not only had this inquisitive bird waited for my return, he accepted the raisins I tossed out to him.
Throughout that Spring and Summer and into early Autumn, while my garden grew Swiss chard and tomatoes and lettuces, the Catbird and I repeated this exchange again and again. We became so familiar with each others patterns and habits, that he would locate me wherever I might be in our small yard, sing or call to make his presence known, then course my progress as I made my way to the side door of the house. Always, he waited until I returned with the bag of raisins — perched on the bird feeder’s hook, atop the patio umbrella, in the burning bush, and eventually standing on the rail outside our kitchen window. We would continue in this manner through the warming Summer days by which time this Catbird was bringing his young to our patio. And when the leaves began to change colors and the air grew cooler with Autumn’s breath, Catbird would depart for warmer climes, I know not where. I would not see him again until his return to us the following Spring.
I do not know if the Catbird that greeted me this morning is the very same creature of eight years ago — that one, I recognized for the distinctive line of fine, charcoal feathers missing beneath the smoky cap and passing through his right eye. The bird that regularly perches on the rail outside my kitchen window this season has no such mark, but wears, rather, a small, distinctive white spot toward the back of his cap on the left side. I call him Calvin, which means “bald” in English. Perhaps, over time, the feathers grew back for our original Catbird. Perhaps Calvin is indeed that same bird. Certainly, his habits and familiarity with my family and me resounds. A part of me would like to think that the Catbird that first introduced himself to me and Calvin are the same, that the line of our acquaintanceship stretches unbroken; or that Calvin is the offspring of that first Gray Catbird.
Maybe it should not matter. The more important thing is that somehow, we have overcome our mutual language barrier and learned a new form of communication. Through his curiosity and interest, I accepted an invitation to cross the growing divide that separates we humans from the natural world. There is so much we deprive ourselves of — unknowingly, unwittingly — on a daily basis in our busy lives, that we gradually forfeit awareness of what we’ve lost. There comes a slow distancing, a numbing. We forget. Through Catbird’s visits, I have pressed myself up to that unseen barrier and regained a small foothold, for which I am deeply grateful. I have stepped into the days of song and raisins. My favorite time of year.
“Catbird in the Dogwood” by Carrie