Ramble with John Vukmirovich: Chicago catbird

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It’s simple enough, a rumination off catbirds by John Vukmirovich, yet rich enough to show why I love reading anything from the man of the 10th Ward on Chicago’s Southeast Side.

Here’s his writing, adapted for screen reading:

Just when one assumes, nature surprises. I’ve lived in the 10th Ward all of my life, 53 years, and since childhood, I’ve spent untold hours in Eggers Grove and at Wolf Lake. When I thought I had seen all the flora and fauna the area has to offer, something new has come along. Dumetella carolinensis, the gray catbird. I saw my first one elsewhere in the city back in the spring of 2009. After positively identifying it (with the help of a field guide and the Cornell Department of Ornithology website), I was pleased but surprised, as I had thought of the catbird as a more southernly species. Days later that same spring, I spotted my first catbird along the Cook County bicycle path that runs on the western edge of Eggers Grove and Wolf Lake. Again, I was surprised. Are they new arrivals to the area, or have they always been here, but I’ve never been patient enough to see them? A third smaller than a robin, catbirds are agile, lithe, and reminiscent of a line from Yeats: With beauty like a tightened bow …. To paint a gray catbird, an artist would need only three colors on his or her palette, and perhaps three brushes. The catbird’s colors are a deep, warm gray, a lush, sooty black, and a soft rust. A number six artist’s brush, filled from toe to belly with that deep gray, would quickly take care of the bird’s overall frame. A number ten brush, thick with sooty black, could, with a gentle plop and pull, take care of the cap on its head. The number six, again filled toe to belly, could with a quick long pull, give the catbird its matching black tail feathers. A number one brush gives the bird its small black beak and long black longs. Cleaned, the number six, dipped in rust red, gives the catbird its rusty under feathers where the tail and rump join. Just a few dabs. Only three colors–two primarily–but the effect is striking and pleasing. What nature spared in colors, it over compensated the catbird in regards to sounds. The catbird’s subdued kitten-like mew is an attention grabber from the edge of the woods, and once it has your attention, it will let loose with a series of wet-sounding clicks, warbles, and chirps, making it kith and kin to Whitman’s mockingbird and Thoreau’s beloved thrushes, singers all. On the morning of Saturday, May 21st, I took a long morning walk along that bike path, my first since late last fall. And the catbirds were my companions. I identified at least six different ones, from approximately 118th street to 122nd, where the bike path meets Burnham Avenue. At least two were females, looking fat, filled with eggs. One such lady of the woods was the first I saw, and heard, that morning. She was perched in some skeletal-looking sumac that was just starting to leaf, and so I was able to get a very good look at her from about six to seven feet away. I also saw her on my way back north on the bike path, and each time, after a wary pause, she opened up and sang me her full repertoire, even mimicking a robin at one point. Colorful but not gaudy, reserved but not reclusive, the lithe, gray catbird doesn’t call or vocalize, as the various guidebooks and websites often term it. Instead, they sing.

And that’s how you do it: watch the natural world, then recreate it nearly as richly.

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