Catbird Seat

On March 18, 2014 · 0 Comments

"In the catbird seat" is an idiomatic expression in the United States although I don’t know if that holds true elsewhere, and means "a position of great prominence or advantage" (Merriam-Webster). This had to be one of the more unusual expressions, and it’s puzzled me over the years although never enough to examine its etymology until I noticed Catbird, Ohio.

Catbird, Adams County, Ohio, USA

Pardon my ignorance. My initial issue was that I didn’t even know whether a "catbird" was a cat parading as a bird for some maniacal reason or a bird masquerading as a cat. Why would the names of two perfectly acceptable yet totally contradictory animals need to be mashed together like that? There was at least one other feline-fauna combination, catfish, so I realized it wasn’t completely unprecedented. Maybe it wasn’t the weirdest possible combination imaginable like maybe catcow (apparently a yoga pose), although catbird still sounded strange to me.

Dumetella Carolinensis

Birders in the 12MC audience already knew the answer and probably smiled at my pitifully uninformed viewpoint. Catbird was indeed a bird masquerading as a cat.

Catbird Bath by Barbara Friedman on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license

Several years ago I took a trip through the Finger Lakes region of New York, using Ithaca as staging point. It was there that I learned of Cornell University’s prominent position in the birder universe, supported by its renowned Lab of Ornithology. Naturally I’ve turned to them as a source of definitive information on rare occasions when 12MC discussed birds, a topic I knew next to nothing about ordinarily. From its Gray Catbird page:

If you’re convinced you’ll never be able to learn bird calls, start with the Gray Catbird. Once you’ve heard its catty mew you won’t forget it. Follow the sound into thickets and vine tangles and you’ll be rewarded by a somber gray bird with a black cap and bright rusty feathers under the tail. Gray Catbirds are relatives of mockingbirds and thrashers, and they share that group’s vocal abilities, copying the sounds of other species and stringing them together to make their own song.

Gray Catbirds range from Central America, up along the eastern coast of Mexico, across most of the United States except the southwest, and then the complete southern rim of Canada (where something like 75% of Canadians live lives). The International Union for Conservation of Nature defined Gray Catbird — Dumetella carolinensis — as a species of "least concern." Gray Catbirds exhibited a stable population and an extremely large range. Chances were good that anyone in the 12MC audience from North America lived amongst catbirds, although like myself, never really thought about it before.

There were several other distantly related and unrelated groups of birds worldwide also called catbirds because of their catty calls, primarily living in Australia plus one in Central America and another in Ethiopia. I focused on the Gray Catbird because the expression "in the catbird seat" likely originated within the United States.

The Thurber Connection

"The Catbird Seat" was a short story written in 1942 by James Thurber and published in The New Yorker magazine.

It was Joey Hart, one of Mr. Martin’s two assistants, who had explained what the gibberish meant. "She must be a Dodger fan," he had said. "Red Barber announces the Dodger games over the radio and he uses those expressions–picked ‘em up down South." Joey had gone on to explain one or two… "sitting in the catbird seat" means sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him.

I won’t give away the ending except to note that the catbird expression figured prominently in the climax. You should read it yourself — it won’t take more than about ten minutes — and come back when your done.

The Barber Connection

(Historic Location) Ebbets Field, Home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York, USA

Walter Lanier ("Red") Barber "was one of the first two broadcasters honored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame." He was born in Mississippi in 1908, became a pioneering sports broadcaster and was considered by many as "the first reporter to broadcast baseball" rather than simply announce the games. He served as the "voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers" from 1939 to 1953. Barber carried along folksy colloquialisms he’d acquired during his travels and used them as he called games, most famously "in the catbird seat." He even titled his 1968 autobiography Rhubarb in the Catbird Seat.

Barber and Thurber popularized the expression. The history of catbird seat prior to their usage was murky at best (e.g., Phrase Finder and Etymology Online). Barber claimed he’d first heard it spoken in Cincinnati years earlier from the boastful winner of a hand of poker that Barber had just lost. Lots of different birds perched in treetops so the question remained, why the catbird? Nobody knows.

Catbird as a Placename

Cincinnati to Catbird, Ohio, USA

Catbird, Ohio was the only populated place in the United States with that name, applying to a settlement and the former site of a collocated school. There were also two inconsequential streams, one in Maryland and one in Tennessee.

Interestingly, the Catbird settlement was maybe 75 miles (120 km) upstream on the Ohio River from Cincinnati, the city where Red Barber claimed he’d first heard the expression. I found no further information about the town other than a soil survey taken by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture in the 1930′s: "A colluvial phase of Huntington silt loam occurs along Ohio Brush Creek along Moore Run and Beasley Fork east of Catbird School and along a number of small creeks north of West Union."

Maybe there was an historical abundance of catbirds along the southwestern Ohio stretch of the river. Maybe people were predisposed to use catbird in an expression like someone elsewhere might have used sparrow, pigeon, starling or robin.

Canada’s Pocket Desert

On March 13, 2014 · 3 Comments

Canada allegedly has exactly one lonely desert, or maybe none at all depending on who might have been consulted. Various names were coined for the anomaly known colloquially as "Canada’s Pocket Desert" including Okanagan, Osoyoos and Nk’mip. Whatever the designation, it’s located adjacent to the Town of Osoyoos in southern British Columbia, just north of the United States border.

Osoyoos, British Columbia, Canada

Some of it might be marketing hype. Osoyoos registered a trademark for its motto, Canada’s Warmest Welcome® in 2008, stating via press release that it "was a play on the fact that Osoyoos has the country’s warmest climate and lake." It’s tourism website claimed "Canada’s only true desert." and noted "very little rain or snow (12 inches or 30.5 cm a year)."

Osoyoos Desert Centre to Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre

The area even included two distinct Desert Centres. The nonprofit Osoyoos Desert Society operated its Osoyoos Desert Centre on the western side.

The South Okanagan is home to one of the highest concentrations of rare and at-risk species in all of Canada. Through its conservation, restoration and education efforts, the Society strives to generate public knowledge, respect and active concern for these fragile and endangered ecosystems.

The Osoyoos Desert Society seemed to take a solidly consistent position that they were protecting a true desert.

Osoyoos by Claude Robillard on Flickr
via Creative Commons license

The Osoyoos Indian Band of the Okanagan Nation operated its Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre on the eastern side. This First Nations tribe hedged its bets about the status of the desert.

Expecting to see tall cactus and sand dunes? Although we share the same dry conditions as Phoenix Arizona, and many desert dwellers such as prickly-pear cactus, scorpions, rattlesnakes and Canyon Wrens live on our site, the jury is still out about whether we are a true desert. What is a desert— low rainfall, hot weather, cactus? Osoyoos does have years with precipitation below 10 inches but we often have rainy and snowy spells which support areas of lush vegetation.

Whether its a true desert, semi-desert, shrub-steppe, Upper Sonoran — all terms used to describe the area by various sources — a more official designation might be Osoyoos Arid Biotic Zone. Desert or not, it’s quite small, quite rare and quite endangered.

The semi-desert area in the southern Okanagan Valley is the region called the Osoyoos-Arid Biotic Area by Munro and Cowan (1947). It is a narrow strip of territory, about 38km (24 miles) long, running from Shaha Lake south to the international boundary. It lies generally below 335 m (1100 ft.) and is characterized climatically by mild winters, hot summers and very little precipitation (less than 20 cm (8 inches)).

I never concluded my thoughts about the controversy. It’s an interesting feature whether it’s an actual desert or not (and certainly more of a desert than England’s "Desert"). That’s when I spotted the nearby Anarchist Protected Area and lost interest.


Anarchist Protected Area? Did Canadian anarchists require their own protected area? As it turned out, no they did not. The Anarchist Protected Area was named for nearby Anarchist Mountain.

Anarchist Mountain, British Columbia, Canada

British Columbia’s GeoBC cited two sources in its origin notes and history for Anarchist Mountain, including "BC place name cards, or correspondence to/from BC’s Chief Geographer or BC Geographical Names Office":

Anarchist Mountain – July 2009 by Jamie Rothwell on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.

Anarchist Mountain and Sidley were both named after Richard G. Sidley, an early settler and first postmaster at Sidley (1895), who, because he showed some brilliance, was appointed Justice of the Peace and Customs Officer (dates not cited). He held, for his time, somewhat advanced political views; he was often called an anarchist, and this plateau became known locally as "the anarchist’s mountain". Local officialdom eventually relieved him of his posts.

I loved that little throwaway comment at the end — "Local officialdom eventually relieved him of his posts" — like the settlers tolerated him for awhile until he finally got on their nerves. At least he still had his mountain.

For More Birds

On January 23, 2014 · 4 Comments

I kicked-up a lot of material as I researched Audubon, Iowa in the recent For the Birds. Originally I’d hope to feature several Audubon towns in the United States — and I do believe they are found only in the United States — and was completely overwhelmed by wonderful delights in rural Iowa. Today I present the rest of the story, or at least a trio of standouts amongst the 213 different Audubon features listed in the Geographic Names Information System. Actually, a case could be made that I’ve featured three-and-a-half. One spawned another in a specific instance.

Audubon, Pennsylvania

Audubon Mill Grove House by Montgomery County Planning Commission
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license

I began with Audubon, Pennsylvania since that particular spot had a genuine, tangible connection to John James Audubon through a property called Mill Grove. He moved there in 1803 when he was 18 years old. Only weeks earlier he’d been known as Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon — He adopted his anglicized name as he boarded a ship to immigrate to the United States. The young Jean-Jacques started with a bit of stigma during his earliest years although he flourished once he arrived at Mill Grove, as the National Audubon Society explained,

Audubon was born in Saint Domingue (now Haiti), the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and plantation owner and his French mistress… he was sent to America, in part to escape conscription into the Emperor Napoleon’s army. He lived on the family-owned estate at Mill Grove, near Philadelphia, where he hunted, studied and drew birds, and met his wife, Lucy Bakewell. While there, he conducted the first known bird-banding experiment in North America, tying strings around the legs of Eastern Phoebes; he learned that the birds returned to the very same nesting sites each year.

The National Audubon Society now manages the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and operates a museum on the historic site.

Mill Grove, Audubon, Pennsylvania, USA

The adjacent town of Audubon served as a fitting tribute, with streets labeled for birds that starred in Audubon’s artworks: Lark; Owl; Sparrow; Thrush; Cardinal; Wren and so on.

Audubon Park, New Jersey

Audubon Park, New Jersey, USA

Audubon Park also had historical significance albeit of a much more recent vintage, and completely unrelated to John James Audubon. The United States government constructed Audubon Park to house workers employed at the nearby New York Shipbuilding Corporation’s shipyard in Camden during the Second World War. The United States needed ships and workers needed a place to live. Audubon Park offered a solution.

Audubon Park was a part Audubon Borough until the borough held a referendum in 1947 and voted Audubon Park out of Audubon. As New Jersey’s Courier-Post explained,

Secession from Audubon was Audubon’s idea, with the cost of educating Audubon Park’s children a point of contention. Politics, though, was really at the heart of the move… Audubon Village was Democratic while Audubon leaned Republican. Audubon outnumbered its neighbor at the polls and the referendum passed.

Apparently the thought of commingling with blue-collar shipyard workers was too much for original residents to bear. Audubon Park got the boot and became its own borough.

Like the Audubon in Pennsylvania, Audubon Park in New Jersey featured numerous streets named for birds. I counted about twenty five different species.

Audubon, Minnesota

Audubon, Minnesota, USA

Similarly, the Audubon located in Minnesota hid an interesting origin assuming its true. Audubon was one of the many towns that emerged along railroad tracks in the latter half of the 19th Century America. An old book, A Pioneer History of Becker County Minnesota (1907), described How Audubon Received its Name when railroad officials traveled through the region investigating potential routes.

About the middle of August, 1871, Mr. Thomas H. Canfield came through on a tour of inspection, and with him was quite a party of aristocratic looking people, and they camped where the Audubon depot now stands. The prairies were then covered with flowers and lilies, and there were several ladies in the party who were filled with admiration at the beauty of the surrounding country, and I remember that one lady asked Mr. Canfield if a railroad station could ever be established there that it be called Audubon. Another man took out a memorandum book and noted down this request. I afterwards learned that the lady was a niece of John J. Audubon, the great American naturalist.

I have my doubts about the accuracy of an anecdote recalled a quarter-century after the fact from something someone "learned" from someone else. Maybe John James Audubon had a niece who traveled through Minnesota in the 1870′s. I don’t know. I couldn’t find any such niece after a perfunctory Intertubes search for whatever that’s worth. It still made a great story though.

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