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Catbirds keep a close eye on gardeners

James Thurber

Our neighbors have cats. So when I heard what sounded like a cat stranded up a tree, I went searching for the sound. Instead of a cat, though, the meow-like call was coming from a Dumetella carolinensis (grey catbird).

The catbird was aware of my every move as it watched me and meowed from a high perch that gave it a clear view of its surroundings.

Which reminds me, it wasn't the first time that I'd been fooled by a catbird into thinking a cat was close, and the meow-like call it was making was a signal to other catbirds that danger was close by.

I was the danger it was announcing, and incidentally it was doing so from a classic "catbird's seat" — a term coined by James Thurber in 1942, a short-story writer for the New Yorker, to describe an advantageous position.

Catbirds are timid birds with attractive, slate-grey plumage and black bills, feet, eyes, tails and caps. About the size of mockingbirds, they feed on insects as well as small fruits. They're also migratory birds that spend winters in the Carolinas, Florida and Louisiana, but return to our region to breed. Nests are typically 3 to 10 feet above ground in dense foliage, and eggs are turquoise.

Catbirds are curious and imitative. I even watched one copy a robin's technique for locating insects beneath mulch.

I've also taught one to chirp what sounds like "pretty bird," instead of meowing its alarm when it sees me. So I suppose it's figured out that I'm not a threat. Still, it keeps an eye on me —from its catbird seat, of course.

This week in the garden

Rainfall, humidity and hot temperatures have all contributed to a bumper crop of toadstools in our lawn, and the overnight appearance of these fungi acts as my early-warning alarm to watch out for plant-related, fungus diseases.

Nothing can be done to stop toadstools from popping up. But plant-attacking fungus diseases can be controlled and prevented when specimens are treated with fungicides labeled for the specific plants.

Many fungicides exist. So always read the product labels to determine if the pesticide is safe to use on the ornamental plant, or whatever edible vegetables and fruits you desire to treat.

Always follow the pesticide maker's labeled directions - particularly if you are treating produce.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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