Nature talks - pic1

The catbird is mostly all gray in color with a very noticeable “black cap” on the top of its head. They have the ability to mimic other bird sounds and can sing for hours at a time.

Editor’s note: The following column was originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader on Oct. 24, 1970.

AS I MUSE WHILE watching the falling leaves and hear the faint lisping calls of fall warblers, I suddenly realize just how short is our season of wild bird songs in New Hampshire.

In the middle days of spring our woods and fields are a cacophony of numberless songs. During an early morning hour it doesn’t seem possible that there could be so many voices — not all beautiful, but most all, and coming from everywhere. And I am tempted to think that these beautiful melodies will be forever there and I can go my way today and return on the morrow and they will be mine to hear. So I let days slip by, not too many, but some, and when I return the songsters are few and their enthusiasm much less than before. And then it is, I begin to remember, that there really are only a very few days in which we can enjoy these precious sounds.

One of my favorite places for listening is down near the pond where during spring days the birds appear in such numbers and happily fill the air with their songs. And at night the spring peepers dare the winter’s cold to return while they declare that spring has arrived.

And so this fall, to get closer to the lisping warblers, I walked toward the pond.

Some years ago we planted a quantity of autumn olive and just recently they have begun to bear very heavily. An autumn olive is a rather thick, bushy growth full of delicate blossoms in the spring and loaded with small reddish-green berries in the fall. They are an excellent planting for wildlife. We have a row of them, not beside the pond but a little way away with a place for walking between them and the water.

As I approached this area I heard the sharp-edged flutter of wings, many more than I had expected, and I was somewhat surprised that there were birds other than warblers there. I knew they were larger than warblers, but I couldn’t see them because of the denseness of the bushes. About the time I began craning my neck to see if I could catch a glimpse of one, I heard an outcry like someone had stepped on a cat’s tail and I knew that it was catbirds that had been feeding.

Now a catbird is a king of sleek gray with a black cap and about the only bright color is its chestnut under-tail cover. Catbirds are of the Family Mimidae. This is the bird family which contains some of the genus mimus which are without doubt the most brilliant and remarkable vocalists of all birds. Mimus, by the way, is Latin, meaning mimic actor.

They’re cousins of the brown thrasher, which also frequents our New Hampshire and one has to listen fairly close at times to be able to tell the difference between the song of the catbird and the brown thrasher. Both of these songbirds seem to sing for hours on end, tirelessly caroling notes which can be attributed to them but also sounding very much like most any other bird you can name.

By the looks of my autumn olive, they are pretty well stripped and my catbirds will be moving south. I have never heard of one that has spent the winter in New Hampshire.

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Stacey Cole, Nature Talks author for more than 50 years, passed away in 2014. If readers have a favorite column written by Stacey that they would like to see reprinted, please drop a note to Jen Lord at jlord@unionleader.com.