Mockingbirds produce a wide range of mimicked melodies
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.”
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
(All of the musicians mentioned can be seen on YouTube!)
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