Nature Connection: Songs Of The Mockingbird

by Mary Richmond

We were recently in Maine for a week, visiting with the warblers that had passed through the Cape earlier in the spring. Many were nesting near the house where I was hosting a group of artists for a workshop. During this time, we were privy to the travels of robins feeding their young in a nest beneath the deck and the quiet concentration of a phoebe sitting on her nest over a gutter fitting attached to the garage.

There were black-throated green warblers, black and white warblers, yellow warblers, ovenbirds, a hermit thrush, red-breasted nuthatches, American crows, brown creepers, juncos and more all around us daily. We were also visited by multitudes of fireflies, bats and a few white-tailed deer.

After the workshop we headed to a small island off the Maine coast to stay with friends and were greeted with an assortment of gulls and terns, a very busy merlin, lots of yellow and common yellowthroat warblers, catbirds, robins, another hermit thrush, a pileated woodpecker and more.

We didn’t hear or see a single mockingbird, however. Mockingbirds tend to be quiet when nesting, so I chalked it up to that since they do nest in Maine. We saw a few chickadees and cardinals, but they were also very quiet. After all, a noisy bird may attract attention in a less than helpful way when they are incubating eggs or feeding young.

Once home we opened the back door hoping to let out some heat and were greeted by the recently fledged catbirds which were now old pros at feeding at the oriole feeder. Mom and dad let me know in no uncertain terms that the jelly dish was empty, and the orange halves depleted. Our grandsons had garden and feeder duty while we were away, but once the young birds are feeding it is nearly impossible to keep up with their demand. And that’s even before the young orioles arrive, which should be any day now.

While I was obediently slicing an orange in half and getting out the jelly and a spoon I heard a familiar sound. Recently fledged mockingbirds have a distinctive call, and we had heard them making a racket before we’d left. They are quite insistent, and you often can hear an adult calling to them quietly, keeping them informed, perhaps, of the quest for food. As the young mockingbirds get older, they still try to get their parents to feed them but the adults move on, often preparing to have another brood. In past years our resident mockingbirds have had three broods in a summer.

This time, however, the call of the baby birds was interrupted by the call of the parent and the sounds went back and forth in rapid succession. This was odd, but odder still was the bugling of a blue jay followed by the cries of an osprey. It only took a minute to realize that we had a mockingbird high in a spruce serenading the neighborhood. Both males and females sing, though usually it is the male that sings persistently. This one was giving quite a concert, mimicking robins, house sparrows, chimney swifts, Cooper’s hawks, cardinals, Carolina wrens, and herring gulls in addition to the aforementioned jays and mockingbird babies.

The mockingbird sang well into dusk, beginning again just before dawn. Some mockingbirds sing all night long, but this one did not. It is thought that the night singers are unmated males hoping to land a mate before the summer ends. If you’ve heard one of these night vocalists you know they sound sort of mournful if not desperate. I realize that is putting human emotions on a bird, but I think most of us will agree they sound pretty sad, whatever their actual intent.

Mockingbirds are related to brown thrashers, and both birds can imitate a large number of other sounds as they build a repertoire. Our mockingbirds are northern mockingbirds and can learn up to 200 phrases. They have been known to imitate car alarms, phone ringers, and in my area, the three ferry horn blasts that signal the boat is backing up.

No one knows for sure why the mockingbird sings and changes up his repertoire as he goes. Most birds learn a song and stick with it, but mockingbirds continue to learn and change their songs, even in the same week or month. It is thought that by imitating other birds in the area it keeps competitors away from their chosen territory, but it could also be a method of attraction. Perhaps a female will be drawn to he who has a large and varied repertoire more than he who is rather humdrum and limited. Since we are not mockingbirds, we will probably never know for sure.

As I write, the mockingbird sits on top of the spruce as he has for hours, occasionally lifting into the air to flash his wings and show off his beauty. He is calling like a cardinal, then a wren, then a catbird, another well-known mimic.

I don’t know if this mockingbird is singing while its mate prepares a new nest. It is our experience that the pair will not lay eggs in the same nest it used previously but will build a new one. Maybe she is already sitting on eggs. The young birds are all around the yard, their speckled breasts giving away their immaturity. Soon, those spots will fade, and they will learn their own songs to sing.

In the meantime, like all young birds, they must concentrate on survival skills as they venture into a world of wonder and a wonderful array of songs to learn. If they listen to their parents they may even get a head start.