Wonders of Nature
The Mockingbird's Song
Story by Gary Clark, Photograph by Kathy Adams Clark
A version of this piece was published Feb 21, 2003
“Wonders of Nature” column in The Houston Chronicle
© 2003 Gary Clark, Kathy Adams Clark
“Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to
enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens . . . they don't do one thing but sing
their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
---Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Get ready for the springtime song of the northern mockingbird. With the coming of wildflowers like bachelor buttons and red clover will come a variety of bird songs; but none will ring more exuberantly than the mockingbird's song.
No other North American songbird can match the northern mockingbird's vocal virtuosity nor compete with its singing stamina. Mockingbirds sing their hearts out in springtime from the break of day until the setting sun, and some sing all through the night.
Hardly a spring goes by without someone asking me what to do about the mockingbird that sings outside a bedroom window all night long.
“Well, don't kill it because that's a sin,” I say. “And keep in mind that the mocker is probably an unattached male trying to attract a female so that together they can make a nest and raise a family.”
Both male and female mockingbirds sing, although the males surely spend the most time singing. The birds sing from February to November, with males dominating the songfest in the spring as part of the mating ritual. In autumn, females join the males in vigorous song as the birds stake out winter-feeding grounds.
In whatever season mockingbirds sing, they sing with a powerful voice, a fulsome song, and an amazing repertoire of songs.
The extraordinary song repertoire of mockingbirds derives from their ability to incorporate other bird songs into a variety of complex harmonies. They can reproduce the song and call notes of at least 36 other bird species.
In fact, female mockers are attracted to the male that can replicate the most songs from the neighborhood birds. Apparently, the female chooses such a male because his song imitations are an indication of his fitness as a mate---if he knows all the bird songs, then he must also know where all the birds are finding food.
Multiple bird songs are not the only sounds that mockingbirds mimic. They can mock the sounds of crickets, frogs, and barking dogs. They can imitate the squeaky sound of a rusty door hinge, the bell tones of a wind chime, and the ringing notes of a cellular telephone.
By assimilating other bird sounds, other nature sounds, and human-made sounds into their own song, mockingbirds are able to produce up to 200 variant songs. Small wonder mockers have the scientific name of Mimus polyglottos, which translates as “many-tongued mimic.”
Several species of birds besides mockers are mimics. Many are in the same Mimidae family as mockingbirds such as the gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) and brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum), both being summer residents in Houston. Even the ever-present blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata) is an accomplished mimic.
However, none is in the singing league with the mocker.
Though a master imitator of bird songs and other sounds, the mockingbird always reveals its identity when singing. It does so by repeating one of its musical phrases or notes two to six times in rapid succession, and it does this every time in every song no matter how varied the medley of sounds. Often, the repeated notes sound like an out-of-tune piano banging out churdee-churdee-churdee.
A remarkable singing aptitude and lively character made the mockingbird a popular caged bird in the 19th century. So great was the demand in those days for mockers as caged pets that the birds reached the brink of extinction in large U. S. cites from St. Louis to Philadelphia.
Had the bird remained quiet, it might have avoided cages. But then as now, mockers were far too audacious to remain quiet. They got their freedom back.
The mocker's aggressive song accompanies its aggressive antics. It is a tenacious and fearless defender of its territory, as many a cat will attest to. A mocker will dive bomb a cat encroaching on its territory, strike the feline with feet and beak, and force it to wander off weary from the incessant harassment.
Showy displays, aggressive or not, are part of the mockingbird's behavior. It flies back and forth from tree limb to tree limb or fence post to fence post all the while flashing its wings like semaphores. The flashing wings probably help to scare away predators and scare up insects.
Bugs are the mockingbird's preferred diet, whether it be grasshoppers, beetles, butterflies, or spiders. The birds will occasionally raid fruits and vegetables in gardens. However, the number of garden-destroying insects mockingbirds devour makes them more friend than foe to gardeners.
Whether in gardens are elsewhere, mockingbirds live year around from the northeastern United States down into to southern half of the lower 48 states and into Mexico. They occupy a wide assortment of ecological niches, from eastern forests to southwestern deserts.
The birds are as much at home in wildernesses as they are in cities or suburban neighborhoods or on farms. They adapt to whatever environment they find themselves in.
Hence, the mockingbird's song rings out all over Texas from the Gulf Coast shores to the West Texas Mountains. Texans could easily claim that the mockingbird's song is the song of Texas.
Appropriately, the mockingbird reigns as the Texas State bird. But it's also the state bird of Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee. The mighty songster seems to be symbolic of the might of all these states.
An old folk tale claims that when Texas legislators adopted the mockingbird as the state bird in 1927, they wrote a resolution describing the bird as “a fighter for the protection of his home, falling, if need be, in its defense, like any true Texan…”
That legend, more than anything else, may be why it would be a sin for a Texan to kill a mockingbird.