January 27, 2011
Northern Mockingbird
Northern Mockingbird
It's almost that time of year when I start getting emails inquiring about "this crazy bird that sits in the tree outside my bedroom window singing all night.  What is it?  If I see it in the daytime I might shoot it.  I can't get any sleep."  Relax.  You are seeing it during the day.  It's your friendly neighborhood Northern Mockingbird.  Take a deep breath and read the following passage from one of the most famous American books of the twentieth century.

Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, they don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.

Sure, it's the passage that set up the metaphorical title of Harper Lee's 1960 novel To Kill A Mockingbird.  It's about not harming the weak and defenseless in our society (Atticus does condone the shooting of Blue Jays however, but the jay tribe is a subject for another column), but it also speaks to how birds and bird imagery pervade our culture.

Northern Mockingbird?  Is there a Southern Mockingbird?  No, but there are sixteen mockingbird species world wide, including Tropical, Galapagos, Chilean, and Patagonian.  Our mockingbird is the northernmost.  It is the official bird of five states, all in the southeast, yet it is declining in the southeast even as it expands its range northward on our continent.  A 1993 sighting at Point Pelee, Ontario was noteworthy, but in 1998 we saw one in Churchill, Manitoba on the shore of Hudson Bay!

Mockingbirds, widespread and common, famously possess one of the largest and most complex avian vocal repertoires, which has endeared them even to non-birders.  Males may have over 150 different songs and readily learn to imitate other birds, other animals, and mechanical sounds.  The best one I've heard was a car alarm perfectly mimicked by a Mocker behind a restaurant along the Scottsdale Greenbelt.

And Mockers aren't defenseless.  I once saw a pair tag teaming a cat that had chanced upon their baby which had fallen from the nest.  Both birds were actually making contact with the cat, one after the other, with their bills until it slunk off without harming the nestling.  (Yes, at that point, on the premise that outdoor cats are not a natural part of the Mockingbird's environment anyway, I interfered with nature and placed the baby back in the nest.)

Mockingbirds are also semi-famous for three behavioral traits--the wing flash, the boundary dance, and the flight display.  You've seen the first, where they display their white wing patches as they walk along the ground apparently searching for insect prey.  Some, but not all, researchers think it is a means of startling camouflaged bugs into movement.  The boundary dance, typically done by two males at the shared edge of their territories, involves hopping one way, then the other as they face off within inches of one another.  The flight display is a territorial advertisement performed by a male from a singing perch.  Flashing those wing patches, he jumps into the air, rises a few yards, then parachutes down on open wings while singing.

So, if your local Mocker is going off this time of year, what should you do?  I'd say enjoy it or shut your bedroom window and invest in some good earplugs.