Photo essay: The songster

Mockingbirds produce a wide range of mimicked melodies

This medium-size songbird — originally named the ‘Carolina mock-bird’ 250 years ago by English ornithologist Mark Catesby — is found mostly in the Southeastern U.S. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

He is in full voice this summer day. A rather nondescript bird, Mimus polyglottos might go unnoticed if it were not for his magnificent songs, his large repertoire and tireless output.

The Northern mockingbird mimics his surroundings, sometimes so accurately that it is difficult to distinguish between copycat and the real thing. Donald Kroodsma, a biologist who has studied birdsong most of his life, labels mockingbirds “the ultimate song-learners, the ultimate mimics.”

Now a town and country bird — and spreading north and west — its adaptability is the key to its success. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

As I write this, I hear the songs of cardinals, jays, flycatchers, towhees and chuck will’s widows, all from “copycat.” The real birds are silenced by his aggressive singing.

Mocker’s songs vary with the seasons: chuck will’s widows and bobwhites in spring and summer; more warblers in winter.

On occasion, sirens from fire trucks rushing down the Tamiami Trail creep into his repertoire.

Is that Penny, the neighbor’s dog?

They prefer cover, as do most wild creatures. Do not chop the tree down, but you could lose a little lawn! Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

What makes this particular bird unique is that, occasionally, he includes the raspings of the Florida scrub jays, who live at Oscar Scherer State Park.

Scrub jays require scrubby oak habitat to prosper; mockingbirds are adaptable. At home in town and country, they can be in the woods, on your roof, on the telephone wires or hopping on the ground, feeding on insects, lizards and berries. Unlike scrub jays, their numbers are increasing.

The perfect yard for these birds has ample cover, trees, shrubs and attendant insects. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

They sing even at night. One summer when I was awake with a new baby, a mockingbird outside my window kept me company just like in the old folksong: “Hush little baby, don’t you cry, Mama’s going to buy you a mockingbird. And if this mockingbird don’t sing, Mama’s gonna buy you a golden ring.”

Mama never had to buy that ring. This bird has been reliable, even to his detriment.

The young mockingbird tries out what he hears and then develops his repertoire as he gets older. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

In the 19th century, he was a sought-after “cage bird.” Having one in the house was a source of entertainment and prestige. Thomas Jefferson kept a mockingbird he named “Jack” in the White House. One of the most popular songs of that era was Septimus Winter’s Listen to the Mockingbird.

Mockers eat berries (This is wild coffee, a Florida native plant) and other fruit in winter. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

The bird inspired poet Walt Whitman to write, “Out on the branch the mockingbird beams forth so that all can see and hear him, this gushing of energy and choice. What beats, what surety, what earthly power! If you want a new form for your poem, you need only listen hard and long, breathe it in, and try not to mock its rhythm but hold on to the way it grabs you and doesn’t stop.”

In summer, they feast on grasshoppers, beetles, ants, wasps, caterpillars and even lizards. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

On a visit to Jacksonville, Duke Ellington was so captivated, he composed Sunset and the Mockingbird on the spot.

The mockingbird not only imitates. He improvises. I think of some bodacious bird perched outside a smoky nightclub riffing off the music, adding his own interpretation. And indeed in New Orleans, it is two-way street. Jazz musicians sound the call to jam by playing a four-note phrase, a perfect fourth, in the same pitch and cadence of a mockingbird, according to Peter Yaukey, professor at the University of New Orleans.

Aggressive defenders of their nests and young, a mockingbird will chase away hawks and other birds much larger than itself. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Sometimes, bird takes over; human — in this case, Mark O’Connor — fades into the background. A violin morphs into a perch for a mocker who belts out with more energy and exuberance than is humanly possible.

Around here, the cardinal is almost always present in song if not in person. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

(All of the musicians mentioned can be seen on YouTube!)

Blue jays are another motif in mocker music. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Fran Palmeri is the author of Florida Lost and Found: Nature in the Changing Landscape. An on-demand program of her “green pilgrimage” through Florida is available at https://scgovlibrary.librarymarket.com/events/green-pilgrimage-through-natural-florida-local-author-and-photographer-fran-palmeri-demand

The rasping of scrub jays at Oscar Scherer may be part of the repertoire, but this species is very local. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri
The call of a bobwhite can be heard, just one of hundreds of species whose vocals fill the air. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri
The eagle is an incessant chatterer, not usually outdone by the mockingbird. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

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