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In This Place

Pondering the Call of the Catbird

Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis)
Hari Krishnan / CC BY-SA 4.0

The catbird sends his song through my open bedroom window, beginning in the very early morning hours—before dawn. His cheery notes invade my lingering dreams and the earliest glimmerings of half-formed thoughts. By midmorning he diminishes his efforts, perhaps not wishing to compete with the waking world’s noise, but he picks up again in the evening.

It is difficult to describe this song: burbling, meandering like a brook, digressive, lacking in structure, smacking of improvisation—more like jazz than opera. The warbling notes go up and down the scale, like a child practicing on the piano; it is as if they head up one hallway, turn and go down another. The song is full of stops and starts, phrases that go nowhere. It reminds me of the chattering of children on a morning school bus. The notes reverberate among the leaves of the understory shrubs and the ferns. And in my window.

But it is late June: surely the nest is built already, and contains its clutch of beautiful blue eggs. What then is the function of this wonderful music? Could it just be an expression of contentment? Could it be analogous to a happy person humming himself or herself through the everyday chores we all have? Could this bird simply be happy?

We tend not to dwell too much on the emotional lives of animals, first because it is so hard to determine such a thing, and second, because we might not want to know how similar they are to our own. But it has been increasingly established that all animals exist on a gradient in terms of emotion, feelings, and thoughts: it is not just humans that worry, fret, goof off, deceive, prevaricate, and celebrate. Animals are governed more by instinct, it is true, but they enjoy their lives as we do; they are not just robotic automatons.

Still, this bird’s brief life—perhaps two or three years—is full of toil and terror, effort and danger, constant threats that require total vigilance. He most likely had to migrate hundreds if not thousands of miles—perhaps all the way from the West Indies—to get to the woods behind my house. He then had to compete for a mate, investing all he had in that pursuit, and, afterward, assist in nest building, feeding the female and then the nestlings, as well as keeping himself sustained. All the while, there is a world full of hungry predators, eager to take him down and destroy his efforts of leaving future generations of catbirds in my woods.

In all this turmoil, is there room for emotions? Or is that turmoil all the more reason for emotion? To celebrate life, this moment, even as he recognizes its transitory nature.

I don’t know. Here I go again, wondering about the meaning of things: why can’t I just be content to listen? I don’t really know if this bird is happy. I only know he makes me happy.