The Northern Mockingbird

On the weekend of the Fourth of July I happened to visit a home with huge, grassy yard. Mockingbirds were flying all over the place, but I noticed that they kept visiting one particular tree over and over.

This column appeared in The Recorder on July 10.

It was the Fourth of July and I was enjoying my third consecutive perfect summer morning. I was at a home that my sister-in-law was renting for the month of July and I had managed to turn my brain off. Well, perhaps I should be a little more specific and say that I turned off the birding part of my brain. How did I manage this feat? I was reading a book about birding.

After all of the stress that comes with the end of a school year I was ready to just be. I didn’t want to think about anything, I didn’t want to worry about anything. I didn’t want to plan anything. All I wanted to do was sit and read a book in the shade. As it turns out, that’s basically all I did for three days and it was wonderful.

However, I should mention that I finished the book I was reading on the afternoon of July 3. The book, “Lost Among the Birds,” by Neil Hayward, tells the story of one man’s unintentional “big year” that turned out to be the biggest big year on record. He managed to see 749 species of US birds in one calendar year and as I read the stories of one species after another I was both jealous and relieved that I’ve never tried such a thing. I am content with pursuing “big months” in the confines of my own private 6-acre slice of the world.

When I woke up on the Fourth of July, with no book to distract me, I discovered that my inner birder had also awoken. I was sitting in an extremely comfortable rocking chair, reading the morning paper, and I happened to notice a northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) land in the lawn in front of me. This beautiful bird had been flying around the yard every day, but I focused all of my attention on it in that moment and was simply transfixed by the bird’s floating, fluttering flight. The bird moved as if it were weightless.

It landed in the lawn, spread its wings with the large white spots in the middle, and then jabbed its beak into the grass. I couldn’t tell exactly what it had caught, but some small invertebrate had been seized and dispatched. Then, as often happens at this time of year, the bird took off in a straight-line flight to a nearby blue spruce. The bird instantly disappeared into the top of the tree, only to reappear a moment later with a large white something in its beak. I had just located the mockingbird’s nest!

The white something was a fecal sac and the bird was clearly feeding chicks. I went inside, unpacked my camera bag, and headed out to the spruce tree to see if I could get any view of the little birds in the nest. Unfortunately the tree was about 10 feet tall and the nest was about nine feet off the ground. On the other hand, the tree was only 10 feet tall and the adult mockingbirds would come quite close to me if I patiently waited. It took less than five minutes for the adults to show up and start scolding me.

The harshness of a mockingbird’s scolding note is in contrast to the absolute beauty of the male’s singing voice. The negative connotations of the word “mock” are unfortunate because there is nothing sarcastic in the song of a mockingbird. Instead, the male puts on a show of mimicry that can cause many a birder (including me) to be completely fooled by one perfect imitation after another. In my humble opinion, the bird’s scientific name, Mimus polyglottos, is a much better name. “Mimus” is the Latin word for “mimic actor,” while “polyglottus,” means “many tongued.” The mockingbird really is the many-tongued mimic.

My yard is in the mockingbird’s range, but there isn’t enough open grass to get a pair to set up shop. If you really want to see a mockingbird then all you have to do is head to the nearest college campus, cemetery, or office park. Enjoy the beautiful fluttering flight of the mockingbird and, if you have the time, see if you can identify all of the species your mockingbird is mimicking. The songs will be uttered in sets of 5, so it should be fairly easy to pick out the real birds from the wonderful imposter.