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  • May 31st, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

To some it is the song of the angels; to others it is fingernails on the dark blackboard of sleep.

The mockingbird is a master improviser on the melodies of other composers, but he (and it is a he that disturbs the silence of night) can be less than enchanting to the light sleeper when the bird riffs at 2 a.m.

Most of the singing is between midnight and 4 a.m. which should catch any light sleeper with the window open right in the crosshairs of irritation. Mockers in full musical spate love to be illuminated, either by a streetlight or a full moon. Tin Pan Alley songwriters are fond of the moon in June as a romantic hook on which to pin lyrics; mockingbirds equally so.

When we lived in town a mocker used the streetlight pole across the street as its podium and sang incessantly. I would sit on the front stoop late at night and listen and, rather than being irritating, I enjoyed the concert. The neighbor nearest the light pole did not share my enthusiasm. A lineman for the power company he donned his climbers one night and disconnected the street light.

The mockingbird, deprived of a spotlight, found a different theater.

There are other birds that imitate, notably catbirds and brown thrashers. But none is as versatile and untiring as the gray bird with the white wing flashes. In addition to fellow birds, mockers create melodies of their own and also imitate barking dogs, squeaking gates and police sirens.

There may be more than two dozen different imitations in a mocker’s repertoire and ornithologists have catalogued more than 200 different imitated sounds (but brown thrashers claim the record for versatility with a documented 1,100 different song types and an estimated 3,000 songs). The mockingbird’s ardent song most commonly is the love ballad of a bachelor bird, though both sexes sing, including mated males—just not as persistently as the guy without a gal.

The male will mark a territory just as surely as does a dog…only with music instead of the dog’s more elemental tribute. Some lovelorn bachelor birds will sing all night long, which tends to drive insomniac urban dwellers up the bedroom wall. Possibly the ultimate avian nightmare would be a mockingbird and whippoorwill singing all night, then a woodpecker drumming on your metal drainpipe at dawn. Most bosses would not accept this as an excuse for lethargy on the job, no matter how valid it is.

There is method behind the mad frenzy of song—ornithologists have discovered that the more varied a male mocker’s song, the more likely it is to interest a female. Once mockingbirds establish a relationship it generally lasts a long time, often for life. And once a bachelor male finds a sweetheart he doesn’t sing nearly as fervently.

The pair nests in low bushes or trees and a mocker’s nest to it is a sacred trust, to be defended fiercely. A mocker protecting a nest is fearless and will dive bomb a human, cat or dog like an avian character from Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds. Mockingbirds are prolific, laying between 2-6 eggs which hatch in just under two weeks. Two weeks later the young are ready to leave the nest. Both parents feed the young.

By their nature mockingbirds are combative and often engage in aerial dogfights as frenzied as a scene from a World War One sky battle between the Lafayette Escadrille and Baron Von Richtofen’s Flying Circus. They’ll dominate a feeder (they feed on insects and fruit) and even will attack their image in a mirror, eyes wild and feathers flared in anger. They won’t come to a seed-feeder (although they might guard it against other birds just on general principles), but might snack at a suet feeder or on grapes and berries.

Mockingbirds are most musical during the time of year when people are most likely to hear them—from early spring through late summer. Generally the singing period runs from February through August. The birds often raise their wings in jerky fashion, a trait called “wing flashing.” Some ornithologists believe they do this to scare up insects from the grass, but chances are they do it because they’re so inordinately pleased with themselves.

Catbirds usually sing their different songs once, thrashers twice…but mockingbirds repeat each call three times and switch rapidly from one mimicked bird to the next, four or five in a row. It’s an in-your-face performance and a little wing flashing to cap it off is a curtain call at the end of a masterful performance.

In winter, mockingbirds migrate south from northern states and have another singing period to establish a feeding territory. So, Southern states have a much longer time to enjoy mockingbird music, which perhaps is why five of them have chosen the mocker as the state bird: Tennessee, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi and Texas. According to legend, the Texans chose the mockingbird because it is “a fighter for the protection of his home, falling if need be in its defense, like any true Texan.” Shades of the Alamo!

As a state bird, the mocker ranks third behind the cardinal and the Western meadowlark (seven redbirds, six meadowlarks and five mockingbirds).

But as a song subject it’s well ahead. You won’t see hit parade numbers written for crows or buzzards, although robins and bluebirds have had their day on the Top 40.

No song about birds has endured like “Listen To The Mockingbird,” written by Alice Hawthorne in 1854, and a standard ever since. Hawthorne is as intriguing as the bird he wrote about.

Yes “he.” Alice was a pseudonym for Septimus Winner, whose mother was a Hawthorne (related to writer Nathaniel Hawthorne). He made instruments and taught several, including guitar and banjo and wrote many popular songs of the day, none as enduring as “Listen.” Winner put words to a melody by Richard Milburn, who worked in his music store, and “Mockingbird” was born. For all his business acumen, Winner blew it by selling the publishing rights to the song for $5. It subsequently sold about 20 million sheet music copies.

It really is a weeper about “Hallie” lying in her grave o’er which the mockingbird sings, not about the bird. And it’s not the lyrics that turn people on– more musicians have developed virtuoso instrumentals of the melody than have learned Winner’s sappy words.

Fats Domino found his thrill on Mockingbird Hill. Carly Simon revealed that “he,” whoever that was, intended to buy her a mockingbird, but if it didn’t sing “he’s gonna buy me a diamond ring.” Not much chance for her and that ring—mockingbirds rarely don’t sing. And there is a Rhode Island rock band called the MockingBirds.

The mockingbird also is a symbol for innocence in Harper Lee’s great novel To Kill a Mockingbird. “Shoot all the blue jays you want,” Atticus Finch tells his two kids, Scout and Jem. “But remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Blue jays and their devotees might not agree and it’s a cinch the wildlife officials wouldn’t.

As tempted as the sleepless human might be to go for his gun when beset by a night-singing mocker, shooting is not an option. “It’s enough to raise the dead!” he growls through gritted teeth.

If so maybe there’s hope for poor Hallie yet….

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