But this bird is a relentless performer. The male mockingbird will even whistle and warble away the night, really pouring it on when the full moon shines. Scientists speculate that females are drawn to individuals with the largest repertoire of songs, so the males practice endlessly, always adding to their material. Their compositions are rich with imitations of the songs of other birds and everyday noises they hear, such as airplanes, barking dogs and shutters rattling in the breeze. Each element of song is repeated 2-6 times and mixed in an expansive variety of composition.
The mockingbird I’m listening to today is transcribing a triangle between the chimney of my house and that of my neighbor and a tree outside the fence. His white wing patches flash dramatically as he flies from point to point, never ceasing to shout his song to the skies. From the top of the chimney he flies up several feet in a loop and lands with a flourish. If there is a female applauding his performance, she is in hiding.
In the 1800s, people with money kept mockingbirds in cages to enjoy their song. Thomas Jefferson had a pet mocker he called Dick. The practice of taking fledglings from the nest and trapping adults for the lucrative captive market nearly decimated the wild mockingbird population on the east coast before protective laws were passed.
Female mockingbirds sing as well as males, but without the volume or the fervor. And they sing more in the fall, perhaps establishing winter territories. The northern mockingbird is resident from northern California east to southern Maine and south to Mexico and Florida. It is the state bird in Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.
Mockingbirds eat a wide variety of insects and even some small reptiles in the spring and summer months. In the fall and winter, they switch their diet to fruits and berries. In the early spring, the male builds cup-shaped nests from thorny twigs, often near homes but well-secluded in thick shrubs or hedges. The nests are usually 3-10 feet from the ground. The female, who may raise four broods in one season, adds finishing touches of grasses, rootlets and miscellaneous trash items. She chooses one of the nests and lays 2-6 blue-green eggs splotched with browns and reds. The hatchlings exhibit the characteristic mockingbird spunk, clamoring insistently for food. They will grow quickly and refuse to be confined to the nest for long. Even while their adult feathers are still growing in, the fledglings leap to the ground to run after bugs and practice flight. During this time, the parents and occasionally a “babysitter” watch over them from nearby rooftops or trees and aggressively dive-bomb intruders to the area. Working on the Liberty hotline one baby bird season, I took a call from a woman who was trapped in her home by an aggressive bird that we soon ascertained to be a mocker.
All About Birds – Cornell Lab of Ornithology at www.allaboutbirds.org
Lifetime Histories of Familiar North American Birds at www.birdsbybent.com
A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert Bird Nests and Eggs by Pinau Merlin