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)


 

 

Lee’s Four Word Thursday – 6/1/17

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Young Northern Mockingbird at Click Ponds by Lee

IN QUIET RESTING PLACES

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“And my people shall dwell in a peaceable habitation, and in sure dwellings, and in quiet resting places;” (Isaiah 32:18 KJV)

Young Northern Mockingbird at Click Ponds by Lee

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Lee’s Five Word Friday – 4/7/17

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Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) Displaying ©WikiC

THAT IT MAY BE DISPLAYED

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“You have given a banner to those who fear You, That it may be displayed because of the truth. Selah” (Psalms 60:4 NKJV)

Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) Displaying ©WikiC

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Lee’s One Word Monday – 9/19/16

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Mockingbird at Gatorland 9-17-16 by Lee

FRUIT

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“And the land shall yield her fruit, and ye shall eat your fill, and dwell therein in safety.” (Leviticus 25:19 KJV)

Mockingbird at Gatorland 9-17-16 by Lee

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Angry (Mocking) Bird

Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) by Dan

Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) by Dan

Luzon Bleeding-heart by Dan

Orni-Theology

We have been attacked repeatedly lately by an Angry Bird. A Northern Mockingbird has decided that he has a rival inside our windows. As the sun shines on different windows during the day, he attacks those windows with vigor.

Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) eggs ©WikiC

Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) eggs ©WikiC

Apparently he has been thinking about starting another family and is trying to clear the area of competitors. He starts at early light and attacks the bird (his imaginary enemy) at one of the two bedroom windows. Then he goes out front and sits in the palm tree by the Florida room windows. Lo and behold, his enemy arrives and he starts attacking that window. It even has a screen on it. Later in the day, about mid-morning his “enemy” shows up in the side window of our living room.

I put some stick-on Christmas tree decorations on the back window, but he still sees his enemy and bangs on the windows. You just have to chuckle.

©©Bing

Angry Bird ©©Bing

As most of you already know, our Northern Mockingbird is seeing his own reflection in the windows. I told Dan yesterday that the Angry Bird is “His own worst enemy!” He is causing his own problems. If he would just relax, (and stay away from the windows) things would be okay.

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. (James 1:22-24 NKJV)

Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) Juvenile ©WikiC

Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) Juvenile ©WikiC

How many times are we “our own worst enemy?” We make big “to-dos” about nothing. Or we think we have an issue when we really don’t have one. Sometimes we cause our own problems.

But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (Matthew 6:33-34 NKJV)

One of the passages that mentions “face to face” that I like is:

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:11-13 NKJV)

Our angry Mockingbird is definitely not showing love.

Have a great day and remember to put your trust in the Lord and not in things you think you see.

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Songs In The Night From The Mockingbird

Mimidae – Mockingbirds, Thrashers

Northern Mockingbird

Eye of the Beholder – Mockingbird

Orni-Theology

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Songs In The Night From The Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) By Dan'sPix

Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) By Dan

who teaches us more than the beasts of the earth and makes us wiser than the birds of the heavens?’ (Job 35:11 ESV)

Orni-Theology

Orni-Theology

Recently.a friend was telling me about a bird that has been singing every night. He said that it begins around 3 AM and continues for hours. He was frustrated by the bird’s behavior. After discussing it, we came to the conclusion that it is a Northern Mockingbird. They have one with a nest in their yard.

We used to have one that had a nest in the bush outside our bedroom window when we lived in south Florida. Whenever the babies were born, our Mockingbird started its “songs in the night.” The songs are pleasant, but in the middle of the night, the urge to throw a pillow out the window sounds tempting.

Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) Juvenile ©WikiC

Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) Juvenile ©WikiC

Northern Mockingbirds are members of the Mimidae – Mockingbirds, Thrashers Family. They are the only Mockingbird in North America and are the state bird in Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas, and formerly the state bird of South Carolina. They are omnivore, meaning it eats fruits and insects.

The Northern Mockingbird is a medium-sized mimid that has long legs and tail. Both males and females look alike. Its upper parts are colored gray, while its underparts have a white or whitish-gray color. It has parallel wing bars on the half of the wings connected near the white patch giving it a distinctive appearance in flight. The iris is usually a light green-yellow or a yellow, but there have been instances of an orange color. The bill is black with a brownish black appearance at the base. The juvenile appearance is marked by its streaks on its back, distinguished spots and streaks on its chest, and a gray or grayish-green iris. Northern Mockingbirds measure from 8.1 to 11.0 in (20.5 to 28 cm) including a tail almost as long as its body.

Although many species of bird imitate the vocalizations of other birds, the Northern Mockingbird is the best known in North America for doing so. It imitates not only birds, but also other animals and mechanical sounds such as car alarms. As convincing as these imitations may be to humans, they often fail to fool other birds. (Wikipedia with editing)

Northern Mockingbird Viera Wetlands

Northern Mockingbird Viera Wetlands by Lee

What is interesting about the Bible verse above is that the verse has been used many times before, but I have not used the previous verse. Here are the two verses together.

But no one says, ‘Where is God my Maker, Who gives songs in the night, Who teaches us more than the beasts of the earth, And makes us wiser than the birds of heaven?’ (Job 35:10-11 NKJV)

God our Maker and the Lord our Savior gives us songs in the night when all is well. Apparently, the Mockingbird is happy or joyful as he sings his songs in the night. We can learn from the songster of the night.

Looking at other verses, what can cause us to not have songs in the night?

The LORD will command His lovingkindness in the daytime, And in the night His song shall be with me— A prayer to the God of my life. (Psalms 42:8 NKJV)

Are we praying and staying in communication with the Lord? When sin creeps in, the songs stop ringing out.

You shall have a song as in the night when a holy feast is kept, and gladness of heart, as when one sets out to the sound of the flute to go to the mountain of the LORD, to the Rock of Israel. (Isaiah 30:29 ESV)

When we have Communion, our pastor always asks us to make sure our fellowship with the Lord and others is clear. When all is straightened out, then we can have our “feast” (communion) with a clear forgiven spirit.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, (Acts 16:25 ESV)

Even when circumstances are not what we would like are we still “praying and singing hymns to God”?

Why we should sing night or day:

speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, (Ephesians 5:19 NKJV)

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him. (Colossians 3:16-17 NKJV)

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