Catbird Melancholia?

photo of a Gray Catbird in a shrubHave you ever listened to a catbird singing at dusk, at the leading edge of a midsummer’s night? And have you noticed that the song often takes on a melancholy quality, a plaintive tone? I have noticed this, though I’m not sure others do. Maybe it’s just my ears, or else my particular uniqueness of mind … or both.

So tonight, on the evening of July 15, 2012, I ventured out into my neighborhood at dusk, a little after 8 pm. I could hear several catbirds in the distance, from singing from shrubbery or hedgerow trees in a nearby overgrown field. But just as I began walking in their direction, a male landed right in front of me, near the top of the tamarack tree next to our little pond, and began his lugubrious song. I was lucky enough to capture it, as bullfrogs periodically sounded off the background:

Gray Catbird singing at dusk. 8:15 pm, July 14, 2012, near Ithaca, NY. Recorded by Lang Elliott

photo of Lang ElliottSo whatya think? Do you hear the quality to which I refer? Or does this sound like any old catbird, giving one unique phrase after the other, some squeaky and even jarring in tone?

I definitely hear a mournful hint, perhaps even more than a hint. Do you? And if you do, I wonder if this a widespread phenomenon, a mid-summer “dusk song” noticed only by those with a certain pensive quality of mind and a certain emotional sensitivity of the ear?

IMPORTANT NOTE: I am not implying here that the singer (the male catbird) is melancholy in mood, only that we humans (or some portion of us) might be effected by the catbird’s dusk-song in this way. It is important to consider such things because our emotions largely define the landscape of our felt, poetic experience.

A melancholy bird? Oh, idle thought!
In nature there is nothing melancholy.

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge



  1. Just a beginner ,but an old man.Thank you so much for what you have done,in briniging into my home such beauty.My love bird,reacts to the sounds and sings upside down,dont know if that is natural,lol,

  2. After back-and-forthing with a number of folks about whether or not catbird dusk-song is “melancholy,” I have decided that the melancholy aspect is mostly due to a combination of elements … not just a subtle change in the quality of song, but also in the way it is framed in the environment.

  3. Catbird chats at nightfall here I take in as nature’s evening news, the day reported by catbird, closing with a simple “selah” inviting us to “pause, and think on that.” In late May when catbirds (and others) weave through the spread canopy of my ancient cherry tree I frequently hear them delightedly exclaim, “CHAYweez!! CHAYweez!!” Makes my day 🙂

  4. Lang, I have a catbird that sings from a shrubbery patch in my yard almost every evening. I have listened to and recorded him at practially all hours of the day, from first light to last, and I agree that there is something different about the song at dusk. I never, however, could put a word to it before- but melancholy is perfect!

    Around here the catbird is always the last bird to stop singing for the night. It may be totally silent out and nearly totally dark before my catbird finishes singing for the night. The sound of his song, at that particular time of night, really does sound forlorn and pleading, as if the bird just can’t quite accept that the day is over, his song echoing through the now-quiet countryside, and being the only sound to be heard.

    On the contrary, I think that the catbird song takes on a certain joyful, bright sound when the bird first starts singing in the morning. That just may be me, my own joy for the coming dawn reflected in what I hear, but I think of it every time I am up at the crack of dawn and listening to “my” catbird.

    • Nick: I think you’ve said it better than I. I agree that it does “sound forlorn and pleading, as if the bird just can’t quite accept that the day is over, his song echoing through the now-quiet countryside, and being the only sound to be heard.” Love it. You most certainly have a poetic mind! And I’m very delighted that another has noticed this distinction.

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