It just didn’t seem fair, the way those experts dissed the catbird on a public radio program I happened upon.
I assume they were correct in saying he’s only a mimic, but isn’t it the case in song that interpreters can matter every bit as much as originators, and quite often surpass the composer in mining the music? How else would you explain, say, Ella Fitzgerald?
So, here’s what I had to say to those opinionated birders, in a poem now appearing in the Winter 2016 issue of WestWard Quarterly (print only).
Those believed to best know birdsong say
and say again the catbird lacks a song of its own
to broadcast from the crest of a winterberry tree.
In some way the critics know nature’s error of orchestration
that leaves this bird only to sample the proper sounds
of the wood thrush the magnolia warbler the red-eyed vireo
even the spring peeper, even your neighbor’s lawnmower.
In some way they know that the catbird’s mews
and whistles and squeaks, nasal moans and throaty
gurgles, count only as illegitimate borrowings from
the walls of sound that delimit his woodland home.
But we lack such certainties and, for the gift of lacking,
we still can make with innocent wonder the critical mistake
of marveling at the catbird’s discredited scatted inventions.