The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, August 07, 2005

The Extremely Vocal Mockingbird
by Ro Wauer

Is there any other bird still singing so constantly this time of year as our northern mockingbird? Even when the majority of our songbirds have stopped singing, or maybe only during early morning, the mockingbird continues its diverse vocalizations throughout most of the day. On a recent morning walk in my Mission Oaks subdivision, only a few half-hearted songs were evident. Doves, chickadees, wrens, and titmice barely made themselves known. But the mockingbirds were just as obvious as they had been since late winter.

The mockingbird, of course, is one of our better known songsters. During the nesting season it usually sings throughout most of the nighttime hours, only to increase its renditions after sunup. And there is much variation to its songs. Typically, mockingbirds possess a musical medley interspersed with harsh notes and imitations.

A birder in South Carolina once reported that a mocker was heard to imitate thirty-two different species of birdsongs in the same locality. They often sing continuously for an hour or more.

As a member of the Mimidae family of birds, that also includes thrashers and catbirds, it is famous for it's singing ability. However, recent studies have shown that the brown thrasher sings a greater variety of phrases than mockingbirds. But it is its assumed mimicking behavior that has attracted so much attention over the years. There are numerous cases when notes from some distant songbird are recognized. Mockingbirds may sing songs of species in which they may never come in contact.

Editor Edgar Kincaid, in "The Bird Life of Texas," explained this phenomena thusly: (1) mockingbirds are not really mocking, but are only singing highly variable phrases that coincidentally sound like those of other birds; (2) a particular mockingbird may be more migratory than most and had spent the winter in other locations where it had learned other songs; or (3) it was mimicking one or more mockingbirds that had learned other songs elsewhere. My guess would be either one or three, as few of the mockingbirds that occur in our area are migratory. And maybe number three is most likely, as it is not unusual for a mockingbird to pick out a particular phrase or sound that it hears time again and include it in its repertoire of sounds.

Whatever the case, there is little doubt that our mockers are fascinating creatures that have a personality all their own. Although all can be quarrelsome at times, driving intruders out of their territory, others seem very content to just sing and survey their territory. When nesting, however, few intruders are ignored. Whether it is a house cat or dog wandering by, or a hawk or crow flying past, they can suddenly be a fierce and persistent defender of all they survey. On numerous occasions I have had a territorial mockingbird dive at me, coming so close I could feel the breeze.

Even this late in the breeding season, mockingbirds can be just as aggressive. Probably their aggressive behavior is a result of a second nesting, but I can't help but wonder how often such action is only the result of a particularly obnoxious individual.

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