Mockingbirds: Versatile Voices in Plain Plumage

NorthernMockingbird-atop-pine.JimWedge-Audubon

NORTHERN  MOCKINGBIRD     ( photo: Jim Wedge / Audubon.org )

Mockingbirds: Versatile Voices in Plain Plumage

Dr. James J. S. Johnson

Curse not the king, no not in thy thought; and curse not the rich in thy bedchamber: for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.   (Ecclesiastes 10:20)

King Solomon warned us!  Some birds are like winged tape recorders, capable of imitating the speech of human voices, vocal calls of other birds, diverse sounds of construction equipment, and even the beeping noise of a clock alarm.  Parrots are so famous for repeating human speech that we use the word “parrot” as a metaphoric verb, for repeating what someone else says.

Mockingbird.RyanHagerty-USFWS
Northern Mockingbird   (photo credit: Ryan Hagerty / USF&WS)

The official state bird of Texas is a famous mimic, as its name suggests: MOCKINGBIRD.  (And, besides the special dignity of being the Lone Star State’s official songbird, the Northern Mockingbird is a special of Professor Ernie Carrasco!)

Despite its prosaic plumage, which combines only black, grey, and white (and thus misses out on all of the rainbow hues), the mundanely feathered Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottus) is nonetheless spectacular in its mimicry range of vocal versatility.  To illustrate, consider this report from Beth Clark, a Nevada resident, writing for BIRD & BLOOMS magazine:

‘BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP.’ My husband and I were participating in the Nevada Bird Count for the Great Basin Bird Observatory, when he started having problems with his new wristwatch timer. It kept beeping ahead of its programmed time.  I assumed [as many wives would have assumed, that] he just needed to read the instructions.  But after several frenzied attempts to fix the device, it turned out that a northern mockingbird was in the area.  The bird was perfectly imitating the sound and volume of the timer.

[Quoting Beth Clark, “Expert impersonators:  Sounds Aren’t Always What They Seem”, BIRDS & BLOOMS, April-May 2006 issue, page 49.]  Surely no one should be shocked to learn that a mockingbird is apt to “mock” sounds, as if it was a winged tape recorder.

Mockingbird-feeding-young.AmericanArtifacts

Mockingbird feeding nestling young  /  photo credit:  American Artifacts

Interestingly, it is only the male mockingbird that you should expect to hear during springtime or summer, as busy mockingbirds go about the business of nest-building, breeding, and taking care of their nestling young.  During autumn, however, both males and females sing their mimicking “songs” and sounds.  [See, accord, Donald Stokes, “Mockingbird”, A GUIDE TO BIRD BEHAVIOR, Volume I (Little, Brown & Company, 1979), page 187.]  Interestingly, mockingbird singing is influenced by the lunar cycle.

Northern Mockingbirds sing all through the day, and often into the night. Most nocturnal singers are unmated males, which sing more than mated males during the day, too. Nighttime singing is more common during the full moon. Northern Mockingbirds typically sing from February through August, and again from September to early November. A male may have two distinct repertoires of songs: one for spring and another for fall. The female Northern Mockingbird sings too, although usually more quietly than the male does. She rarely sings in the summer, and usually only when the male is away from the territory. She sings more in the fall, perhaps to establish a winter territory.

[Quoting Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” article on mockingbirds.

Of course, other birds have the same ability.

Northern mockingbirds, gray catbirds and the thrasher family are the most common mimics in North America. The mockingbird is the most accomplished mimic of the group [called Mimidae].  Its imitations are executed so precisely that scientific analysis often can’t distinguish between the imitation and the original.

Mockingbirds can replicate the calls of up to 32 bird species as well as the sounds of [large] animals and insects, and a wide array of human noises. You might even hear mimics imitating birds you’ve never heard of.  Once mimics learn a phrase, they’ll use it throughout the year.  So they easily pick up new bird songs from their wintering grounds [JJSJ note: some mockingbirds migrate, while other are year-round residents  — see range map below].  In New Jersey, someone once heard a gray catbird mimicking a brown-crested flycatcher [vocalization] that it likely picked up in Central America.

[Quoting Beth Clark, “Expert impersonators”, BIRDS & BLOOMS, April-May 2006 issue, page 49.]

Mockingbird-Rangemap.Wikipedia

Northern Mockingbird range map   (image credit: Wikipedia)
YELLOW:  breeding range;   GREEN:  year-round residence range
[NOTE CONTRA:  Cornell Lab of Ornithology indicates a year-round range for all the lower 48!]

Of course, it’s not just mockingbirds that mock the sounds of other creatures and non-living noises.

Brown thrashers … can learn human words and phrases, and sage thrashers imitate a variety of natural sounds. The European starling is a phenomenal mimic.  In addition to the human voice and other man-made sounds, it will reproduce the sound of a woodpecker drumming.  I once heard a caged European starling that spoke clearly and sang several radio jingles with perfect pitch.  Jays, crows, Carolina wrens, shrikes and vireos also mimic other bird species.

[Quoting Beth Clark, “Expert impersonators”, BIRDS & BLOOMS, April-May 2006 issue, page 49.]

BrownThrasher-GarlandTX-ManjithKainickara

Brown Thrasher in Texas   (photo credit; Manjith Kainickara)

But how do these avian mimics replicate the sounds of others? They have a special vocal organ called a “syrinx”, a word derived from the Greek word σύριγξ – referring to musical reeds (i.e., “pan pipes”), which is the same root for our English word “syringe” (a reed/straw-like tube, used in medicine).

Birds make sounds in a different way than humans do. People vocalize by passing air across the vocal chords.  Birds, however, make sounds using their syrinx.  Birds are the only animals that have a syrinx, which is located in the windpipe, close to the lungs.  The muscles surrounding the syrinx allow the birds to control the sounds, much the way changing tension on a violin string alters the pitch.  They control the volume by changing the air pressure in their lungs.  Generally, the birds with the most muscles around their syrinx are the most varied [i.e., most versatile] vocalists.  For instance, while pigeons have a single pair of muscles [around the syrinx], catbirds and crows have seven to nine pairs.  Most songbirds have about five pairs.  That explains how a northern mockingbird tricked my husband into thinking his timer was broken, but the bird’s amazing array of impersonations remains mind-boggling.

[Quoting Beth Clark, “Expert impersonators”, BIRDS & BLOOMS, April-May 2006 issue, page 49.]

Syrinx-BirdAnatomy.Wikipedia-diagram

Schematic drawing of an avian syrinx

from Wikipedia’s “Syrinx (bird anatomy)” article.

  1. last free cartilaginous tracheal ring
  2. tympanum
  3. first group of syringeal rings
  4. pessulus
  5. membrane tympaniformis lateralis
  6. membrane tympaniformis medialis
  7. second group of syringeal rings
  8. main bronchus
  9. bronchial cartilage

Mockingbird-eating-winterberries.JonesNaturePreserve

Mockingbird eating winterberries    (photo credit: Jones Nature Preserve)

How can you attract hungry mockingbirds?  Don’t worry; northern mockingbirds aren’t “fussy” eaters. As omnivores, they will eat what is available:  insects (especially during summer, when beetles, ants, wasps, bees, butterflies, and moths are the mockingbirds’ main diet), earthworms, berries and other fruits (especially apples), tomatoes, seeds, and even lizards.  Some have even reported mockingbirds sipping sap from trees recently pruned.   [See Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” article on mockingbirds, posted at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Mockingbird/lifehistory .]

Mockingbird-harasses-RedShoulderedHawk-Floridaform.AllCreationSings

Mockingbird harasses Red-shouldered Hawk (Florida form)  /  photo credit:  All Creation Sings

Once a mockingbird established its home territory, watch out! Mockingbirds will guard their claimed turf with vim and vigor.

It is hard for a behavior-watcher to think of mockingbirds and not also think of territoriality, for this is undoubtedly the most prominent aspect of this bird’s behavior. Not only are its territories small, sharply defined, and aggressively defended, but they are also formed twice a year – once in spring for breeding and again in fall to protect a winter food source.  Add to this the fact that [mockingbirds] are partial to living in urban [and suburban] areas, and you undoubtedly have the best of our common birds in which to observe territorial behavior.

[Quoting Donald Stokes, “Mockingbird”, A GUIDE TO BIRD BEHAVIOR, Volume I (Little, Brown & Company, 1979), page 187.]

So, enjoy the varied vocalizations of your neighborhood’s mockingbirds, but respect their territorial “turf”, because they are seriously committed to homeland security!

Mockingbird-attacks-RedTailedHawk-flickr.com-photo

Mockingbird attacks Red-tailed Hawk   (photo credit: flickr.com)


 

 

Palaces Are Known For Both Tattletales And Wagtails

Palaces Are Known For Both Tattletales And Wagtails

Dr. James J. S. Johnson

Curse not the king, no not in thy thought; and curse not the rich in thy bedchamber: for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.   (Ecclesiastes 10:20)

Royal palaces are known to attract (and to house) some of God’s winged wonders, and Catherine’s Palace —  one of the imperial Russian palaces  —  is no exception.   (And not all palace-dwelling birds there are tattle-tales, although some are wagtails!)

CatherinePalace-TsarskoyeSelo.main-entrance-exterior
Catherine’s Palace, front entrance exterior   (Saint-Petersburg.com photograph)

Catherine’s Palace is a royal mansion – a “summer palace” —  in Pushkin (a/k/a Tsarskoye Selo), about 19 miles south of St. Petersburg (f/k/a Leningrad), Russia, which my wife and I visited on July 9th of AD2006.  The imposingly-humongous-yet-flourishingly-ornate, embellishment-heavy, exquisitely dignified architecture is classified as Rococo (i.e., late Baroque), and a ton of wealth is built into its many construction details and decorative displays.  The palace was originally commissioned by Empress Catherine I (AD1717) but was extravagantly modified (during AD1752-AD1756) at the direction of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, Catherine’s daughter (who was 1 of Catherine’s 2 children who survived to adulthood, the other 10 dying young), and afterwards by Emperor Alexander I, Catherine’s grandson.  Before German invaders destroyed the palace’s interior, during World War II, Russian archivists had documented the interior of the palace; those records were used (after the war) to repair and restore some, but not all, of this historic and opulent mansion.

GrandHall-CatherinePalace.PushkinRussia

Grand Hall, Catherine Palace, in Pushkin, Russia   (Saint-Petersburg.com photograph)

Yet one of the most magnificent treasures, of Catherine’s Palace, survives to this very day  —  hidden in plain view  —  skipping merrily in the yards and fields adjacent to Catherine’s Palace: the WHITE WAGTAIL.

WhiteWagtail-youngfemale.AndreasTrepte

WHITE WAGTAIL  1st summer female (Andreas Trepte / Wikipedia photograph)

The White Wagtail (Motacilla alba), a mostly grey bird (of a grey tone similar to that of many mockingbirds) with a black head (and bib) that contrasts with white “eye-mask” plumage, plus blue and white striping on its wings and tail-feathers.  This small black-white-and-grey passerine, cousin to the pipits, is named for its most famous behavior: wagging its tail.

Slim black and white bird with a long, constantly wagging tail. Frequently seen beside water but equally in fields, farmyards, parks, [recreational] playing fields, roadsides, rooftops.  The [subspecies variety called the] Pied Wagtail (race yarrellii) is resident [of the] British Isles, although a very few nest on adjacent continental coasts.  Nominate White (race albus) nests throughout Europe [from the Iberian Peninsula to the Ural Mountains, including the Baltic Sea coastlands including Russia’s St. Petersburg –  but only summering in the northern half of Europe], and is scarce but regular passage migrant to Britain (March-May / August / October).

[Quoting Chris Knightley, Steve Madge, & Dave Nurney, POCKET GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF BRITAIN AND NORTH-WEST EUROPE (London & New Haven, Yale Univ. Press, 1998), page 201. See also, accord, Lars Jonsson, BIRDS OF EUROPE, WITH NORTH AFRICA AND THE MIDDLE EAST (Princeton University Press, 1993), page 372-373.]

WhiteWagtail.BengtNyman

WHITE WAGTAIL   (Bengt Nyman photograph)

For me, the Wagtail’s characteristic tail-wagging reminds me of a happy pet dog, such as a French Poodle or Labrador Retriever. Every child should have happy memories of a happy dog’s companionship – I’m thankful that my childhood memories include such happy times.  Wagtails themselves enjoy their own version of companionship; they are monogamous, sharing nest duties (e.g., constructing the nest together, taking turns to incubate their unhatched eggs, and taking turns feeding the hatchlings), and they defend their own family’s territory.

WhiteWagtail-with-bug.Moorhen-photo

WHITE WAGTAIL with insect prey   (Roy & Marie Battell / Moorhen.me.uk photograph)

What do wagtails eat?  A mix of adult and larval insects (e.g., flies, midges, cranflies, mayflies, caterpillars, moths, dragonflies, beetles, aquatic insect larvae), spiders, earthworms, tiny fish fry (as it wades in shallow water), a few seeds, and sometimes small snails.

WhiteWagtail-InternetBirdCollection-IvanSjogren

WHITE WAGTAIL male in shallow water    (Ivan Sjögren photograph)

The White Wagtail also bobs his head while walking, somewhat like how city-dwelling pigeons do.

Walks or runs [sometimes making quick dashes] with nodding head, sudden lunges and flycatching leaps. In flight, can be picked out at distance by long tail and conspicuously dipping action, with distinct bursts of wingbeats.  Flight call characteristic:  a loud tchiz-ick; also utters an emphatic tsu-weeI.  Lively, twittering song.  In winter, forms large roosts in reedbeds, towns, etc.

[Quoting Chris Knightley, Steve Madge, & Dave Nurney, POCKET GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF BRITAIN AND NORTH-WEST EUROPE (London & New Haven, Yale Univ. Press, 1998), page 201.]

So, if you ever get to visit Catherine’s Palace, in Pushkin (outside of St. Petersburg), Russia, as we did on July 9th of AD2006, do enjoy all the golden glitter and ivory opulence  —  but don’t forget to also keep an eye open for a bird wagging its tail, maybe foraging on the manicured lawns nearby, or hunting near other less glamorous buildings  —  you might see an avian treasure, the White Wagtail!         ><> JJSJ  profjjsj@aol.com

WhiteWagtail-rooftop-hunting.Moorhen-montage-photoblend

WHITE WAGTAIL hunting rooftop insects     (Roy & Marie Battell / Moorhen.me.uk montage photo-blend)

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CATHERINE’S PALACE:  aerial view, Pushkin, Russia   (Saint-Petersburg.com photograph)

Birds of the Bible – Repeating Birds

Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) by Dan

Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) by Dan

Curse not the king, no not in thy thought; and curse not the rich in thy bedchamber: for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter. (Ecclesiastes 10:20 KJV)

Talking birds! Is it possible? Solomon wrote about it in Ecclesiastes while telling people not to curse the king, even in your bedroom. Are there birds who could tell your words? First lets look at the words of Scripture in just that part of the verse. Again, I have used my e-Sword Bible program and a few other printed versions.

(ACV) For a bird of the heavens shall carry the voice, and that which has wings shall tell the matter.
(ABP+) For a winged creature of heaven shall carry your voice, and the one having the wings shall report your word.
(AKJV) for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which has wings shall tell the matter.
(AMP) for a bird of the air will carry the voice, and a wing creature will tell the matter.
(ASV) for a bird of the heavens shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.
(BBE)  because a bird of the air will take the voice, and that which has wings will give news of it.
(Bishops) (10:19)  for a byrde of the ayre shall betray thy voyce, and with her fethers shall she bewray thy wordes.
(Brenton)  for a bird of the air shall carry thy voice, and that which has wings shall report thy speech.
(CEV) A little bird might hear and tell everything.
(Darby)  for the bird of the air will carry the voice, and that which hath wings will tell the matter.
(DRB)  because even the birds of the air will carry thy voice, and he that hath wings will tell what thou hast said.
(ERV) A little bird might fly and tell them everything you said.
(ESV)  for a bird of the air will carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the matter.

Superb Lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae) by Ian

Superb Lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae) by Ian

(Geneva)  for the foule of the heauen shall carie the voice, & that which hath wings, shall declare the matter.
(GNB) A bird might carry the message and tell them what you said.
(GW)  A bird may carry your words, or some winged creature may repeat what you say.
(ISV) For a bird will fly by and tell what you say, or something with wings may talk about it.
(JPS) for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.
(KJV)for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.
(KJV-1611) for a bird of the aire shall carry the voyce, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.
(LITV)  for a bird of the heavens may carry the voice; yea, the lord of wings may tell the matter.
(MKJV) for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which has wings shall tell the matter.
(NASB)  for a bird of the heavens will carry the sound and the winged creature will make the matter known.
(NIV) because a bird of the air may carry your words, and a bird on the wing may report what you say.
(NKJV) For a bird of the air may carry your voice, And a bird in flight may tell the matter.
(RV) for a bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter.
(Webster)for a bird of the air will carry the voice, and that which hath wings will tell the matter.
(YLT) For a fowl of the heavens causeth the voice to go, And a possessor of wings declareth the word.

Talking birds are birds that can mimic human speech. Talking birds have varying degrees of intelligence and communication capabilities: some, like the crow, a highly intelligent bird, are only able to mimic a few words and phrases, whilst some budgerigars have been observed to have a vocabulary of almost two thousand words. The Hill Myna is a commonly kept pet, well known for its talking ability – whilst its relative, the European Starling, is also adept at mimicry. Wild cockatoos in Australia have been reported to have learned human speech from ex-captive birds that have integrated into the flock. (See the Article – Wikipedia)

Monk Parakeets at S Lake Howard Nature Park by Lee

Monk Parakeets at S Lake Howard Nature Park by Lee

Dan and I had a Monk Parakeet that talked. Once Hoppi began to talk, he picked up everything you said. He even learned to call our dog, having heard us calling for him. Our dog would even look his way and head toward Hoppi when he called. Praise the Lord we are Christians, because that bird would repeat our conversations. I doubt he knew what he was saying, other than associating words with actions, but Hoppi did repeat what you had said.

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From the article in Wikipedia:

In 1995 a budgerigar named Puck was credited by Guinness World Records as having the largest vocabulary of any bird, at 1,728 words.

Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus) ©WikiC

Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus) ©WikiC

The African Grey Parrots are particularly noted for their cognitive abilities. Some of the most notable African Grey Parrots are Alex, Prudle, N’kisi and a new rising star, Einstein.
Alex had a vocabulary of about 100 words, but he was one of the most famous birds because of his cognitive abilities. In 2005, World Science reported that Alex understood the concept of zero. Alex died on September 6, 2007.
Prudle held the Guinness world record for bird with biggest vocabulary for many years with a documented vocabulary of 800 words.
N’kisi is noted for his impressive English usage skills and other abilities. As of January 2004, he had a documented vocabulary of 950 words and shows signs of a sense of humor. N’kisi is believed to be one of the most advanced users of human language in the animal world.
Einstein appeared on many television shows and became famous for her ability to recreate sounds as well as voice. Video clips show her making the sound of a laser beam and an evil laugh. She has been trained by Stephanie White.
African Grey Sparky is popular on YouTube for copying one liners from the sitcom Still Game in a broad Scottish accent.
Bibi, a Congo African Grey Parrot, is best known for her ability to use greetings from 20 different languages, earning her the nickname “The Polyglot Parrot.” At only three years of age, Bibi has already developed a vocabulary of about 300 words, and she understands the concepts of color and shape.

Yellow-crowned Amazon, Blue-headed Parrot by Kent Nickell

Yellow-crowned Amazon, Blue-headed Parrot by Kent Nickell

Amazon parrots – Many species of Amazona (particularly the yellow-head variety) are outstanding talkers. Yellow-napes, Double Yellow-headed, Yellow-crowned, and Panama Amazons are highly regarded as talking parrots.
Other parrots – Most parrot species are capable of imitating human words. Many can learn to use phrases in context; they can also be trained to imitate any words. Monk Parakeets (also known as Quaker parrots) are also reputed to be skilled talkers.
Hill Mynas – Hill Mynas are renowned for their ability to mimic the human voice. Many have claimed that the Hill Myna is the best talking bird and the best mimic in the world.
Lyrebird, ability to mimic natural and artificial sounds from their environment
Mockingbird, ability to mimic natural and artificial sounds from their environment
Passerine – Songbirds

Sounds like we need to watch what we say, not only about the king, but everyone. Even if the birds don’t hear us, the Lord hears our words and our thoughts.

Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer. (Psalms 19:14 KJV)

Fish Crow (Corvus ossifragus) at Lake Morton By Dan'sPix

Fish Crow (Corvus ossifragus) at Lake Morton By Dan'sPix

Here are some “one liners” about gossip from Zingers by Croft M. Pentz:

  • Blessed are the hard of hearing, for they shall miss much small talk.
  • Trying to squash a rumor is like trying to unring a bell
  • A rumor is about as hard to unspread as butter.
  • Can you imagine anyone as unhappy as a person with a live secret and a dead telephone.
  • Busy souls have no time to be busybodies.
  • When a little bird has told you something, be sure that bird was not a cuckoo.

There is another verse in Scripture that mentions the birds telling something, but it is used in a different context. We will save that for another Birds of the Bible article.

But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee: (Job 12:7 KJV)
Job 12:7

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More Birds of the Bible

Wordless Birds

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