Catbird NightSong

Stillness reigns as sunlight dims …
The catbird’s liquid strain.
A farewell song that greets the night
As twilight’s glow begins to wane …
Wistful dreams of sweet refrain.

While thinking more about the possible melancholy aspect of catbird song (see Catbird Melancholia?), I remembered a recording I made over twenty years ago, in the dead of night, of a lone catbird singing with a chorus of bullfrogs far in the distance:

Night singing Gray Catbird, 12:15 am, 5/29/91, Conn Hill WMA near Ithaca, NY. Lang Elliott

photo of a Gray Catbird singingPerhaps even more than the catbird featured in my previous blog post, this male stands out as very special indeed, at least to my ear. I love the way he employs silent intervals between songs. And his laid-back songs seem to be relatively free of the harsh and dissonant notes that characterize many performances. The end product is beautiful to behold, the quality of song punctuated by the mood of the night (at least that’s the way I hear it, but note that one of my Facebook friends recently described catbird song as being “irritating,” which is certainly NOT in agreement with my perception).

Does the darkness influence the catbird’s way of singing? Or does this individual sing this way all the time, even at dawn and in full light? I did not return to find out, so there is a mystery here. I suggest that all of us who live in catbird country listen very carefully from now on to see if we can discern a pattern. When does the catbird sing most beautifully and with a pensive tone? All the time, at dusk, at night, never?

The emotional impacts of bird songs are the result of a complex interaction between the quality of the song, the place and time of singing, and the emotional body of the listener. While each person will have his or her own unique experience, it is nonetheless possible, even likely, that poetically-inclined listeners will agree about felt emotional impact, at least some of the time (okay, I admit that I’m an optimist in this respect).

photo of cover of book entitled "Born to Sing"To date, I know of only one study of bird song that attempts to quantify aesthetics. In his book “Born to Sing,” Charles Hartshorne takes a rather technical approach to judging the quality of a bird’s song, defining six dimensions that potentially allow us to “rate” a species’ song-making ability: loudness, complexity, continuity, tone, closure, and imitativeness. While this is at least a beginning, I feel it ignores many subtle variables that may have strong impact on how we humans sense and feel a bird’s song.

Note: Two new books that include discussions of aesthetics are “Why Birds Sing” by David Rothenberg and “The Great Animal Orchestra” by Bernie Krause. Both are must reads for those interested in multidimensional treatments of bird song!

So what is it about certain bird songs that move us emotionally, that ignite our hearts and souls? Well, that’s a very good question and one that I hope we are able to make progress with as we voice our reactions to sound recordings posted on this blog.

Herkneth thise blisful briddes how they singe,
And see the fresshe floures how they spring:
Full is myn herte of revel and solas.

—Geoffrey Chaucer


    • David: You’re right and I just added a paragraph pointing readers to your book and to Bernie’s book. I also tweaked the sentence introducing Hartshorne’s book to describe it as being the only attempt at actually quantifying aesthetics, at least that I know of.

  1. Wonderful recording. While in NJ for an art show, we had a catbird singing right next to our camp site. Unfortunately, the camp ground was painfully noisy but I did manage a dawn recording of this male. His morning song certainly seem bright and cheerful as if greeting the new day with joy.

  2. OMGollyDarn, look at this wonderful bird song poetry by Kristina Polk, from her blog “Wild at Heart”:

    Kristina’s poetry reminds me of the prose of Olive Thorne Miller (1831–1918) and other writers from the golden age of nature poetry!

    Here are some samples:

    • Staring at me unusually with his brown bespectacled gaze, the Wood thrush fills the forest noon and sings for warmer days.

    • Sharply bleats the bunting, blazing blue and bright; assertive are his sweet refrains as he spreads his wings in flight.

    • Pops of noise explode from the tanager’s red throat; he twitters kindly to the woods, pleasant are his notes.

    • Rising fast like morning mist, a Prairie warbler sings; his seeping notes cascading low to cause an echoed ring.

    • Ethereal and bright, the veery trills at dawn, her flowing notes slip easily in a saintly song.

  3. Lang,
    Hi, it’s Kristina, one of the Corvids from Hog 🙂
    My nickname in and around my birding friends is ‘Catbird’, for I’ve been known to get emotional over the bird…it was the first I ever held in hand, at the time when I truly became a birder. They’re such a common, usually overlooked species, and I struggle sometimes inviting people to appreciate them in their seemingly dull grey palette of feathers, their hidden dirty auburn untertail coverts.
    This recording is truly spectacular, and it only solidifies my love of the GRCA. They’re incredible little vocalists with a lot to say, and clearly this male was more eloquent than some of his peers in uttering such notes.
    Thank you for sharing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.