The Catbird Seat

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Photo by Joan Heffernan
When not perched on a branch in its “Catbird Seat”, the gray Catbird can sometimes be seen foraging on the ground looking for insects and fruit

If you hoof it on the bike trail on either side of town you can be sure to see and often hear the resident catbirds. They have returned from wintering down south and are drawn to thickets and shrubs where they post up and sing. A relative of the mockingbird, the catbird can mimic other sounds and his fall back is a mewing cat which often turns people’s heads. They sing to establish territory, and some of their songs last up to ten minutes, so you are in for a treat. A handsome grey bird with a black cap and a flash of reddish feathers under his tail. The catbird builds his nest in the thicket, usually on a horizontal branch, and will have two-three broods a season. The eggs are turquoise with tiny red spots, and usually there are one to six eggs per brood. Catbirds feed on insects and fruit and lazily fly from branch to branch taking in the whole scene.

Hence the phrase “catbird seat” which is an expression alluding to a situation in which one has an enviable position. Sophomore year, I had a friend who knew something about an enviable position. Things seemed to always turn out her way, and when it came time for the housing lottery for our next year, she pulled a very low and enviable number. So, she got one of the first picks of dorm rooms and chose one that was a former common room featuring double doors, lots of room and a large set of windows overlooking the quad. With a view like that, she would have the intel to share on which dreamy boys were headed out to play Frisbee in the quad or which one of them was heading to the dining hall. With that info I could casually bump into him at the silverware station, the most romantic location possible. It did not take me long to recycle one of my dad’s many expressions, as I referred to her being in the catbird seat and we nicknamed her room The Catbird Seat.

I did a little digging, and discovered there was a novel by that name written by James Thurber, and a baseball commentator, Red Barber, who was fond of the expression, and both sources may have helped the catbird seat become an idiom used across the country. After my dad’s Canadian Club on the rocks, he would often weave one of his many idiomatic expressions into his conversation, and to this day I am repeating them to my own children, much to their annoyance. They understand we shouldn’t put the cart ahead of the horse, and that we should strike when the iron is hot. But they still scratch their heads when I talk about the life of Riley and wonder who that Riley person is anyway. But I digress. The catbird is one fine bird who seems to have it all. An elegance of appearance and a rare mix of vigilance and relaxation as he rules the thicket. I’d like to take a page out of his book. Oops, there I go again!

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