Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Listen to the Mockingbird

If you want to know what kinds of birds are in a particular area, look for a mockingbird.

I say “look,” because you will recognize the gray thrush-like bird with the long tail with white edges and a white patch on each wing.

What you won’t recognize is its song. It doesn’t have one.

Found in all 50 US states, this bird takes the songs of other birds it hears, which is why it is a particularly good indicator of what’s around that particular patch. The mockingbird will repeat a call anywhere from two to 20 times before switching to another. It can literally sing for hours.

My father-in-law told me he was once entranced for 30 minutes by the repertoire of a gray bird on his roof, which I identified for him as a mockingbird. These birds make it easy for you to find them. They like to sit on a roof or high in a tree or on a structure next to something that will amplify his singing. I’ve seen them singing in a giant satellite dish and on a tall, bare tree that was close to a building, which provided an echo.

The bird is called the northern mockingbird but I can’t imagine why since all my associations with the bird are with the south. There’s the wonderful “To Kill a Mockingbird” - both the book and movie - which takes place in the south. It is the state bird of Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas, all once part of the Confederacy.

I have heard as many as six mockingbirds singing at the same time, at an apartment complex near the water in Jersey City. I have heard as many as three widely scattered around a parking lot. Usually you’ll hear a hissing as the singer chases an interloper out of his territory. About the only time I don’t see mockingbirds chase other mockingbirds away is when a male needs to find a female.

Mockingbirds aren’t intimidated by size either - my husband and I have seen them chase American crows, grackles and even redtailed hawks away from a nest or, when chasing off a robin, a bush filled with berries. (Like its cousins the robins and bluebirds, mockingbirds don’t come to feeders unless you are providing them fruit. But since they are so possessive I don’t bother.)

They will sing early in the morning and late into the evening, for long periods of time. In New York City I have heard them imitate car alarms pretty effectively.

I recorded one once in an Englewood Cliffs, N.J., parking lot not far from the Palisades and among the calls that I recognized were a blue jay, great crested flycatcher, robin, titmouse, gull, cardinal, carolina wren, red-winged blackbird, redbellied woodpecker and a white-breasted nuthatch - and that was just in 2 minutes, 28 seconds.

(Here is another mockingbird someone else recorded and posted on YouTube.)

For a bird with no song it shows up in a lot of songs. There’s lyricist Johnny Mercer of Savannah, Ga., who put the mockingbird in many of his songs including “Blues in the Night.”

There’s the folksong “Listen to the Mocking Bird.” (An alternate spelling. The song is from the mid-nineteenth century.)

There’s the familiar children’s lullaby that begins, "Hush, little baby, don't say a word, Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird" - a song sampled by Eminem, of all people, in his sad song about the breakup of his family.

The lullaby was updated by Inez and Charlie Foxx in 1963 for their hit “Mockingbird,“ later covered by a lot of people including (as seen on YouTube) Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, the cast of “Dumb and Dumber” and Carly Simon and her then-husband James Taylor.

There’s also another song of loss, by Rob Thomas, that goes: You and me tried everything/But still that mockingbird won't sing.

Must be pretty bad for Rob because the mockingbirds I’ve found have had no trouble singing.

What is it about the mockingbird that brings out the melancholy in some people? Perhaps it’s the constant melodic singing that makes people think of another constant that might be gone, like love?

Thankfully, the mockingbird’s song doesn’t have that effect on me.