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  • Dr. Ron Bright

Mockingbird: Midnight Crooner

Figure 1: The midnight crooner in daytime.

Bird (def) : a warm-blooded egg-laying vertebrate that has feathers, wings, and a beak and usually is able to fly.

Mocking (def): usually used in a negative way; ridicule, deride, jeer at, sneer at, unkind

I think most people would NOT think of a mockingbird in this negative manner. More likely we would have a more positive outlook and would describe the mockingbird as friendly, playful, full of good vibes, humorous, and melodious.

Further evidence of the mockingbird’s favorable reputation are these two quotes from a very popular book “TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD”. (Harper Lee, Author, 1960) Atticus to Jem: “shoot all the bluejays you want if you can hit them but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” In another passage, Miss Maudie states “ mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

Now for a few features of a mockingbird known to learn many songs that are repeated by said bird! The latin for mockingbird is very descriptive- mimus polyglottos. Polyglottos is a Greek word that means “multiple languages”. Aptly named I’d say. The northern mockingbird is the one found in North America. Others include the Socoros, Bahama, Blue and Tropical.

This bird is a medium-sized gray bird with a white neck area; the wings have two white stripes and large white patches seen at rest along the lower border of the wings. The white patches really stand out when the bird is flying and are seen as “bars” running forward and backward along extended wings. The bill has a slight downward curvature of medium length and is brown/black in color. It is an omnivore and has a diet of worms, fruit, and some small amphibians and reptiles. Mostly they subsist on insects.

In my experience, they do most of their singing from atop a structure such as an electric pole or tree as seen there two photos (figures 1 and 2)

Figure 2

The mockingbird is considered a New World Passerine from the family Mimidae. They are best known for micmicking songs of other birds and even the sounds of insects and amphibians (frogs). These songs are often very loud and repeated in rapid succession. It is not unusual to be singing late at night, even past midnight. A “midnight” crooner if you will. I distinctly remember a late evening in Missouri many years ago when I left the house of one of my lady friends after breaking up with her following a squabble. As I was walking to my car around 12:30 AM I heard this very melodious happy sound coming from atop an electric pole and sure enough it was the “midnight crooner!” I was downtrodden and sad so this did not fit my mood and I finally got it to stop after I threw a pebble in its direction. Much to my chagrin, it flew to the top of a tree out of my throwing arm range and starting serenading me again!

Northern mockingbirds can make up to 200 different calls; females are attracted mostly to males that make the most different sounds although females can also be talented enough to sing muliptle songs. The bachelor males make more songs than the mated ones. Throughout their lifetime they continue to always be learning new songs. The songs are usually a long series of phrases with each one repeated 2-8 times before changing to a new song. Most of their songs are “whistled” but they can also make other sounds like scolds, trills, or rasps. Thrashers have a similar sound but the phrases are limited with their variation and most are repeated only 2 or 3 times. Gray catbirds have similar sounds but their phrases are more hurried, slurred, and nasal.

The mockingbird is very territorial and can survive in multiple habitats. Lead in their environment can make them more territorial and aggressive. (Stephanie McClellan, published in Science of the Total Environment). The lifespan of the mockingbird in the wild can be up to 8 years; when captive, up to 20 years.

To enjoy a number of northern mockingbird sounds go to Cornell Lab of Ornithology site and search for “mocking bird sounds”. Enjoy being serenaded by the "midnight crooner"!

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