Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Northern Mockingbird

The northern mockingbird, Mimus polyglottus.
I am never on  my porch for very long before I notice a bird singing above the traffic and other city noise. The mockingbird in my garden sings all the time. Perched conspicuously on a rooftop antennae or treetop he lowers his wings, throws his head back, opens his beak, and sings. And sings. And sings.

Male mockingbirds sometimes sing continuously for more than an hour. In spring and summer they may start before dawn and some of them keep right on singing into the night, especially if seeking a mate and especially if there are bright lights or a full moon.

They are famous for singing a varied repertoire that includes phrases from other birds' songs. They are creative mimics and can pick up and string together surprising things like the sounds of frogs, or doorbells, or humans whistling. The mockingbird typically repeats a phrase 3 to 6 times and then sings another, all at a very loud volume. The singer may jump from his perch and quickly return with some fancy wing flashing. Mockingbirds are resident throughout North America all year but they draw our attention by singing mainly from February to July and then again from late August through October. 

Why all the singing? Mockingbirds are territorial; males chase away other males, females chase away other females. When a mated male sings, he mostly directs his songs into the territory -- he sings to the female within. But when an bachelor male sings, he broadcasts in all directions, probably hoping to impress a female  somewhere out there. Singing is a big part of a mockingbird couple's interaction; during sex the male sings when he approaches the female, sings during copulation, and sings after.

Loud! Loud! Loud! Walt Whitman quotes the bird. Read more below.
What kind of song impresses a female mockingbird? Something complicated! A recent study of mockingbirds around the world showed that those living in areas with more variable climate sing more complex songs, suggesting that better singers are smarter and better able to deal with the challenges of harsh weather; they just might make better, more resourceful fathers. (Click here for more details about the mockingbird climate study.)

Mockingbirds are gray above and white below. They are about 10 inches long, including the tail. The legs and tail look longish. The wingtips look rounded. White patches on wings and tail stand out when the birds fly.

In Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman wrote about a pair of mockingbirds nesting on Long Island, capturing the cadence of mockingbird song in his words. Parts of the poem are pasted below, click here for the rest.

 Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking – Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass 

OUT of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird's throat, the musical shuttle...

Once Paumanok,
When the lilac-scent was in the air and Fifth-month grass was
Up this seashore in some briers,
Two feather'd guests from Alabama, two together,
And their nest, and four light-green eggs spotted with brown,
And every day the he-bird to and fro near at hand,
And every day the she-bird crouch'd on her nest, silent, with bright
And every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never disturbing
Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating. 

Shine! shine! shine!
Pour down your warmth, great sun.'
While we bask, we two together. 

Two together!
Winds blow south, or winds blow north,
Day come white, or night come black,
Home, or rivers and mountains from home,
Singing all time, minding no time,
While we two keep together...

Loud! loud! loud!
Loud I call to you, my love!
High and clear I shoot my voice over the waves,
Surely you must know who is here, is here,
You must know who I am, my love. 

Out from the patches of briers and blackberries


  1. It is fun to have some of the odd (to me) behavior of our neighborhood mockingbirds confirmed here. My boyfriend has a bakery in the downstairs half of our house; sometimes in the summer I wake in the wee hours to a bowl banging in the sink, and then I hear another sound - the mockingbird singing. Makes me grin to know that the two of them are awake together.

  2. Nice, Zoe. Mockingbirds are full of surprises and very entertaining. Julie