The Nature Writers of Texas

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Friday, February 21, 2003


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.

28 Comments:

At 3:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, in the amazing Novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, it is a sin to kill one. they consider it a sin, because all the mockingbird does, is sit there and sing its little heart out. So in turn, the wonderous specimen is an article of pure peace and calmness, because they do not annoy, harm, or poop on cars. all they do is sit there, and blow their little hearts out with a simple but magnificent melody.

 
At 1:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am 54 years old and have just come across my first mocker. it is a joy to listen to him. I live in Rochester NY. I have spent alot of time outdoors but have not had the pleasure to hear this wonderful bird until now.

 
At 7:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

They do more than just sing their hearts out. For the last week two Mockingbirds have been terrorizing me and my cat on our daily walk around the apartment. They swoop down at our heads, and then hover over us threateningly. My cat seems baffled by this behavior. He's never killed a bird, and hardly has any interest in them. Now he's running for cover. (The text above must be referring to this.)

 
At 12:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can someone tell me why mockingbirds do a little dance when they walk around? I live in Georgia and we have mockingbirds all over our back yard. They're so funny to watch because they'll fly up into a tree, sing a song, and then fly to the ground and dance, then back up in the tree.

 
At 8:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was WONDERING what all the racket outside my window was! Wowee I dont sleep much anymore. This bird just never quits! HAHA - I swear to God that it makes the sound of a car alarm from a car that used to be here. Woo Woo Woo it sounds just like it. Anyhoo, thanks so much for solving this mystery!

- Scott, Dutchess County NY

 
At 3:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm so glad I found this site. Last night I was furious at the little mocker, and understood the expression "to kill a mockingbird!"
He was singing "la cucaracha", which he may have gotten from a cell phone ring!
I'll try to keep my sense of humor if he keeps me awake again tonite (1:15 am through the nite!!)

 
At 3:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

by the way, I posted the above, and neglected to mention that I live in New Rochelle, NY,...a suburb of NYC

 
At 7:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

These birds are a pain in the, well, backside! They have totally destroyed my garden. They pulled my pumpkin seedlings right out of the ground and have been snipping the blooms off of my chinese okra! So, this year I will have no chinese okra and my children won't be able to carve a homegrown pumpkin for Halloween. Thanks alot Mockingbirds!

 
At 9:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've always enjoying listening to these wonderful birds sing. Their food source must be scarce now in January because they are terrorizing all the other birds at my feeders. We found a new nut and berry blend of seed and they have discovered it along with the suet cakes. We finally had to remove them because they would attack the other birds that tried to come near. Is this normal behavior at feeders?

 
At 11:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For all yall who blame the mockingbird for terrizing gardens or attacking cats lets say ect. maybe you are mistaking this wonderful bird for the pathetic excuse of a bird the sicssor tail.

I am a high school student who read "To Kill a Mockingbird" in middle school..the first time you read this spectacular novel be prepared to be drawn in from the first line, the book continues to be a page turner and will inlighted you of the depression era, social inequality, human morality, and the coexistance of good and evil. Now as a senior i am rereading this fantastic book to refreash my memory and serve as a constant remider of Herculean tasks these admirable characters endured.

At my house in Texas we have a mocking bird who has always been delighted to share its abundant ornate musical talent with the neighborhood. This Mockingbird named SWATCH recently had a baby whos name is currently pending;however, BOO RADLEY is one of my top choices-being one of the inspiring characters in the novel and essentially the symbol of a mocking bird.

 
At 11:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've heard that the bird's reputations to mock sounds is a myth. I live in Austin, Texas and see them every day; and I have never heard any mimicry. Roy Bedicheck, naturalist and writer, claims in his book, Adventures with a Texas Naturalist, that he has never heard a mocking bird mock anything.

So, I guess I'd like to know what sources are being cited, especially regarding the birds ability to mimic up to 200 sounds (a dog barking, no less).

 
At 7:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I type I am listening to our resident male Mocker who has staked out a territory between our house and across the street. For the first time ever however, I heard a song that I've never heard from a Mocker before...that of a Seagull!!! But since this Mocker also mimics the car alarm that goes off just about every morning down the street, I'm not suprised! The appearance of the Mocker to me means spring; his disappearance means winter is around the corner.

 
At 2:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We have a five acre area with a 50 year old dense fencerow, a perfect sanctury for many birds, but the most appealing is the northern mockingbird. His antics, and his variety of songs stir the soul of anyone taking the time to listen. He sits on our tv antenna, at the very top, and can spend up to two hours going through an entire repertoire of other bird songs, and he does mimic the ones around here. We hope he doesn't hurt himself this November, as he has been circling our house windows and fluttering and pecking at his reflected image, much to our dismay. We understand it is territorial display behavior, but it is a first time for him to spend this much effort every day. There is plentiful food for him and he does not bother the other birds that live here year round; although we have seenhim escort a red tailed hawk from the neighborhood, all by himself.

 
At 3:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of my favorite memories as a young girl (40 yrs ago) was waiting forever in the parking lot of a large clinic in Houston with my brother and sister while my mom went in for different medical tests. I didn't really know enough to be worried, I just know it took forever, but I entertained myself with a mockingbird ... I found I could whistle any tune, and it would whistle it back! We probably did this for an hour or two probably kept me from asking my older siblings too many questions. (my mom was fine)

But ever since then, whenever I meet a mocker, I whistle something in the hopes it will call back... doesn't happen...

So now they just keep me awake, but I can't help but marvel that they can sing so many different songs, with such vigor for so long! I swear the one I listened to all night Saturday was also singing all day! How do they do it! I also can't imagine a female flying around at night just to find these virtuosos! Any one know what kind of advantage is there from an environmental standpoint, for all this night singing?

 
At 2:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love Mockingbirds. Even though I have never seen one, I still believe that they are extroudinary animals. I can't wait to see one in real life! Thank GOD for this website!

 
At 5:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Strange behavior. A male mockingbird (thought to be because he sings all day), sits at the top of our roof and flies straight up and down....constantly. I know he is trying to attract a female and I haven't seen but the one bird.
So, he sings loudly and flies up and down flapping his wings. SURELY, some unsuspecting female will come along!

 
At 6:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many times during the last two weeks I have witnessed a mockingbird (the same one?) performing a strange, ritualistic "dance". He takes a few steps on the ground, stretches his wings apart as far as possible, and repeats the steps and wing-stretches over and over. Any clues concerning this funny little two-step? Thanks!

 
At 10:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know Mocking birds are truly amazing. We have one right in our back pasture, and he has picked up the singing from our canary! Truly remarkable

 
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At 9:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What the hell does the financial market have to do with innocent mockingbirds and their observers? Are you trying to sell gold on this website? Gross!

 
At 5:05 PM, Blogger Randall said...

Mockingbirds have taken over my back yard. First there was just a pair that fiercely policed and squacked anytime I tried to hang out with my cat like always. Now there are adolescents. I am really, really trying to find redeeeming qualities in these birds but so far no success. I'm 49, don't like to sin (I've read the threads about to kill a mockingbird), and have never shot anything. However, the poop all over the trampoline, incessant noise (I haven't heard anything pretty and they seem to be chasing out all the song birds), and relentless dive bombing behavior are getting me real close to borrowing an air gun and taking these creatures out.

 
At 9:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To those of you who doubt the mocking birds' ability to mimic, I just watched & heard my resident mocker mimic a gang of crows who passed through my yard just moments before. I regularly see him sitting on my chimney, going through a tremendous repertoire of other birds' calls - not to mention the sounds of emergency vehicles and cell phones. It is really impressive, highly amusing and leaves me in no doubt as to the ability of the species.

 
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At 8:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

MOCKINGBIRD SUNRISE


Now that the roar of all the cars has finally faded away

And the full moon’s in the west, to take it’s rest, with the coming of the day

And the cackle of the grackles is gone to my surprise

And somewhere near I can hear a mockingbird sunrise


I see light in the east and light the day’s first cigarette

It’s the coming of the dawn, but like this song, it ain’t quite here yet

And the forest is so still, I quickly realize

Somewhere near, I can hear a mockingbird sunrise


Man, I love all the woods, the rocks and creeks and the trees

And it does my soul so good, and like I should, I get down on my knees

God is in his heaven and I have to wipe my eyes

‘Cause somewhere near, I can hear a mockingbird sunrise


God is in his heaven and I have to wipe my eyes

‘Cause somewhere near, I can hear a mockingbird sunrise

 
At 8:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

MOCKINGBIRD SUNRISE


Now that the roar of all the cars has finally faded away

And the full moon’s in the west, to take it’s rest, with the coming of the day

And the cackle of the grackles is gone to my surprise

And somewhere near I can hear a mockingbird sunrise


I see light in the east and light the day’s first cigarette

It’s the coming of the dawn, but like this song, it ain’t quite here yet

And the forest is so still, I quickly realize

Somewhere near, I can hear a mockingbird sunrise


Man, I love all the woods, the rocks and creeks and the trees

And it does my soul so good, and like I should, I get down on my knees

God is in his heaven and I have to wipe my eyes

‘Cause somewhere near, I can hear a mockingbird sunrise


God is in his heaven and I have to wipe my eyes

‘Cause somewhere near, I can hear a mockingbird sunrise

 
At 7:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My precious mockingbird friend has found my backyard strawberry patch. I did not know which of our many feathered friends was the culprit until this evening as my bride of 53 years and I were enjoying our dinner on the backyard patio and we caught the little dude red handed, pecking away at a lucious berry which was to be fully ripe tomorrow. The straw I had carefully placed was no challenge for this fellow. He simply sat in the straw and pecked away as if he had been watching the berry reach perfection and he, being smarter than I, enjoyed his treat the evening before I was to divide it with my sweetheart with our morning creak. Ahhh, but that little fellow has earned his treat many times over. I think I will cancel plans to place netting over the berry patches and just consider the berry patches as sharing with a neighbor which God created to start my day and finish my evening with a song. Enjoy! Little fellow. You have earned your treat many times over and already you have retreated to your favorite perch to serenade us once again. Thank you Lird!

 
At 10:29 AM, OpenID NewsView said...

A pair of mockingbirds made my West Coast backyard home this year. They designated the last three homes on my side of the block as a nesting territory, while the opposite side of the street belonged to another mockingbird with whom the male residing on my side of the street occasionally squared off.

I noticed the male mockingbird imitate another bird once, early in the spring. I heard what I thought was a crow, only to see the mockingbird repeat a crow's call. When a crow flew over to see what was up, the mockingbird delighted in chasing the crow off. Since Mr. Mocker was never much of a songster from the outset, I believe this mimicry might have been an early display of prowess to prospective mates.

For a number of years beforehand, there was a boisterous singer who resided in our yard year around. He finally abandoned his territory seemingly because few mockers were around and he never apparently mated. Not long after he left, however, many mockers set up territories in the surrounding neighborhoods. The mockingbird that assumed the other bird's territory, while much quieter — he literally preferred to sing at almost a whisper by comparison — enjoyed better success.

From February 2013 onward Mr. Mocker began to "man" his posts on the top of telephone polls, but otherwise displayed a much different personality. While he isn't much of a virtuoso, but he did show some aggression toward his mate while raising the second brood of chicks this past summer, which he apparently wanted to be almost solely responsible for! By the time the exhausted parents were on their third and final nest, the one chick they attempted to raise died inexplicably in our yard. Out of three nesting sites I observed, only three fledglings over the entire season made it.

What I learned from my experience is that not all mockingbirds are aggressive toward people or pets. The male bird began observing his territory in February, and by the time he found a mate and began to raise young he wasn't interested in dive-bombing resident cats or dogs, nor any of the gardeners or individuals who lived in the three homes where he built nests. The parents allowed members of my household to come very close to the young, and never so much as scolded us. Consequently, we had a front-row view of the pair raising their young throughout the summer. Comically, we even had a front-row view of the parents scolding the children to get off the lawn and elsewhere in the yard to their designated "tree" at bedtime (sundown). (Like children, their young didn't care to go to bed early :-)

To read the comments on the Internet, you might conclude that all mockingbirds are indiscriminately aggressive during nesting season. In my experience, however, this simply isn't the case. Pets that were familiar within the mockers' territory were totally ignored, as were people, including the postal carrier in our area. The parents seemed to be smart enough to conserve their strength for genuine threats: I only caught the parents dive-bombing squirrels, crows and stray cats on the prowl that didn't belong in the yards they invaded at dusk.

Like people, some mockingbird parents are overprotective and others seemingly laid back. In my observation, the male mocker seemed to get the lay of the land early on in the year, allowing him to distinguish between pets and people who belonged in his territory and those who did not. Studies, in fact, have shown that not only do mockingbirds have the capacity to distinguish individual people but that they could not be fooled when study participants attempted to disguise themselves. Once you establish a reputation as a harmless host, you will probably have few problems at all with a nesting pair of mockingbirds, if you even happen to appreciate that they are present at all! Far from being a nuisance, in my observation two out of three of our neighbors on either side, at which a nesting site was hosted, had no idea mockers were even there!

 
At 11:32 AM, Blogger NewsView said...

I would like to add an observation that also contradicts prevailing wisdom about mockingbird behavior. Many report that mockingbirds tirelessly scare off other songbirds in their yards, whereas my observations suggest a symbiotic relationships between smaller birds and mockingbirds, notably in areas where bird feeding stations are relatively uncommon.

In my area, there were six pairs of mockingbirds who established breeding territories, and in each instance I witnessed mockingbirds in their respective territories quite literally surrounded by a cluster smaller birds throughout the day (finches, primarily). I surmise the birds benefited from the mutual "warning system" that the presence of other birds offered. (Sharp-Shinned Hawks are also common to my area, among other mutual threats.)

Even when I observed mockingbirds and smaller species consuming a common food source in my yard, in this case figs, there was no aggression on the part of the resident mockingbird toward the cohort of smaller birds that share the same territory. In fact, I observed the smaller birds take the lion's share of the fruit, with the mockingbird awaiting till much later in the month and day to feast on figs. From this, I can only deduce that when food sources are plentiful mockingbirds do not waste energy on fruitless competitions with other birds.

It may be the case that in areas where the Northern Mockingbird is less apt to survive the winter than some of the better-known natives — cardinals and whatnot — aggressive behavior is more commonly observed. But even at that, I would suggest cutting mockingbirds some slack. How, after all, can anyone fault a mockingbird for doing what he or she can to survive winters in areas where they frequently do not? I suspect if your own survival were on the line, you too might be inclined to put all your wits to their best use!

Suggestion: If an aggressive Fall/Winter mockingbird is a problem for those who enjoy feeding wild birds, the solution may very well be to place another feeder out of view of the first — on the premise that a mockingbird cannot police all stations simultaneously. Sure there are prettier birds to attract to a feeder but rarely are they as clever or vocally gifted. A mockingbird, too, ought to be taken under bird watchers' wings — for in so doing it might just spare a life.

 

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