Nature Connection: Natural Copycats

By: Mary Richmond

If you spend any time with small children, you know they love to play the copycat game. They will repeat everything you say and mimic every action you make. Their eager joy in the game will easily outlast that of any grownup, sometimes to the point of annoyance. Older brothers and sisters are the usual targets of this game and it doesn’t always end well.

Copying is a natural way of learning, not just for our human children, but for wild animals and birds as well. Copying, or mimicry as it is known in the scientific community, is also a tried and true defense tactic.

Most of us have learned how the supposedly yummy viceroy butterfly mimics the horrid tasting monarch butterfly. Once a bird or animal has had the shockingly vile taste of a monarch in its mouth, it will leave all similar looking butterflies, including the viceroy, alone. There are many other examples but some of the most interesting are in the plant world. Check out how some mushrooms imitate others, often to the detriment of those picking and tasting.

Here on the Cape we can find many examples of birds that are natural mimics. Catbirds, mockingbirds and thrashers are the ones we think of first, but starlings, crows and blue jays can mimic other birds and sounds, too. Blue jays are best known for their hawk imitation skills. They can clear a bird feeder in seconds. It isn’t known if this particular act of copying is intended to do that or if it is a convenient, added benefit.

Mockingbirds weren’t common here when I was growing up, so I was very excited to have one choose my yard as its territory way back when I was a young mother. It sang every morning and afternoon and even into the evening. It had quite a repertoire of songs and I enjoyed listening to it. Mockingbirds that sing all night long just haven’t found their mates yet so there’s something sort of bittersweet about that, at least from a human point of view.

Over the years I moved to different houses, finally settling in where I am now for the long haul. For at least a dozen of those years I had a mockingbird that owned my yard, nesting in various spots, always defending its territory in no uncertain terms. That bird had the calls of robins, Carolina wrens, titmice, song sparrows and blue jays well memorized, as well as its own soft muttering. One year the mockingbird did not claim his usual spot in the spring. It had been a rough winter and I’d noticed he’d gone missing after a particularly bad spell of cold, wind and snow. I mourned his loss and hoped his end was quick, perhaps by Cooper’s hawk, rather than freezing or starving to death.

It took several years for another mockingbird to discover the same sweet spot and what appears to be the same bird has now been in place for the last four or five years. This bird has all the same bird songs but in different order. It also has the call of the ospreys that soar overhead and what sounds like a dog barking. It has a mate that also sings, though not quite as vigorously.

This year the mockingbirds fledged two young, and all four can be found foraging in my yard at different times of day for bugs of all sorts. The young birds follow the parents but rarely beg anymore. They hop about, poke about in the grass and fly up to a tree branch at any sign of danger.

While sitting out in the yard reading a book on a recent warm afternoon I heard the very soft singing of what I soon discovered to be a mockingbird. It was beginning with a song sparrow, then a titmouse call. It warbled a bit, then started over and there was what sounded like a robin, but it was hard to hear. There was a second mockingbird sitting on a nearby branch, also singing softly. Was this a lesson? Was it just two birds singing, playing copycat on a hot, summer afternoon? Was it a young bird? The parent? I could only sit back and listen. Whatever the reason and whichever birds they were, parent or child, they were perfecting and sharing their mimicry skills in an uncharacteristically quiet way. Nonetheless, they created a perfect soundtrack for reading in the shade of a big old tree.