By Jon & Shani Friedman
The most frequently heard complaint about mockingbirds usually comes from someone that has been sleeping but is awakened by the incessant calling of the young male, who sings almost continually, day and night, until he’s successful in attracting a mate. While they are considered to be among the premier singers in the bird world, the endless singing may interrupt a sound sleep. Even avid birders need their sleep! Young male mockingbirds that are eager to begin their monogamous adult lives and settle down with a mate often begin their search by singing as much of their complete repertoire as possible – and the list of songs and calls they know are awesome.
They sing throughout the day, every day, and often into and through the night as well. It’s believed that on nights with a full moon they tend to sing even longer. Sometimes, it seems, they sing and call for several days without too much rest. When we were living in Bisbee many years ago, we had a young male mocker who was perched on a native Arizona (Juglans Major ‘black’) Walnut Tree just outside our second story bedroom window and he sang for four or five nights, barely stopping to catch his breath, it seemed. I was fascinated by the sheer number of songs and calls this young bird knew. Occasionally, I’d hear something familiar. Like the song of the cardinal, the drumming of the woodpecker, the mewing of a cat, and the rumbling sound that reminded me of starting a car that doesn’t want to start.
I began to do some reading about mockingbirds and was amazed that researchers thought that male mockingbirds inherently knew close to two hundred other bird calls. And, throughout their lifetime, they could learn as many as ten times that much. John Terres, one of the most knowledgeable writers about birds, observed a male that changed his tune eighty-seven times in just seven minutes! He also recognized 54 different bird calls in that seven minutes.And, like many singers, both human and avian, it seems to come naturally for them. At the extreme maximum end of mimicry is the closely related Brown Thrasher, whose repertoire has been estimated at about 3000 songs, calls, and sounds!
Mockingbirds and thrashers are closely related and both are members of the Mimidae family. All Mimidae are considered to be great mimics of other sounds they hear, particularly bird songs and calls. The Latin name for mockingbird is mimus polyglottos and without knowing Latin it isn’t hard to understand why the bird is aptly named. In Latin, mimus means “mimic”, poly means “many”, and glottos means “tongue”. All of which add up to the translation “many-tongued mimic”. No one could improve on that description. In addition to mastering the songs and calls of many other birds (it’s thought mockers can mimic any birds vocalizations after hearing it just a single time), mockers are well known for imitating many other sounds, both natural and unnatural. People have heard these birds replicate, very accurately, the sound that other animals make (meowing/barking, rooster’s crowing, etc.), human sounds (babies crying, short commands/exclamations, whistles, etc.), doors slamming, rusty gate hinges, cars backfiring, fire engine sirens, teapots whistling, screeching of machines or other machine sounds, etc.
Their general range in the United States has historically been primarily the southern half of the country. However, since the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, ornithologists have been recording their range as they established themselves further north as the world climate changes and the northern regions experience more warmth than they did historically. Researchers have noted that in very cold winters some of the mockingbirds at their northern-most range will migrate further south. But, with the tendency of warmer climate in future years, it is thought that mockers, like other species, will expand their year round range into Canada. They have been noted in Southern Canada for quite a few years already.
But, in most of their range, they are considered year-round residents. Five southern states (Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas) chose the Northern Mockingbird as their official state bird. (In Arizona, our official state bird is the Cactus Wren). Wherever mockingbirds are found within their range they stake out well defined territories (for breeding and for feeding). While all animals (including humans) are territorial, birds are amongst the most territorial and mockingbirds have won a reputation for being among the most territorial of all birds.
There are hundreds of accounts in the literature that describe how fiercely mockers will defend their territory. They will “attack” nearly any human, animal or bird that gets too close to their nesting ground. Attack means they fly directly at the head of whatever creature they think is invading their territory, or simply getting too close to their nesting site, and repeat this behavior until the offender leaves. They have been known to actually land on the heads of offenders and viciously peck their heads until they do leave the area. They are famous for this type of behavior in their interactions with dogs, cats, snakes, hawks, other wild birds and animals and even humans.
Defending food territories is a similar story. If you have an oriole station set up, or have fruit or insect meal feeders that they use, mockingbirds will sometimes try to fend off or drive off other species who may also use the same feeder. Some folks who feed birds in their backyards are happiest when they don’t have mockingbirds coming around and disrupting the relative calm.
While insects are consumed year round, in wintertime (especially at the northern end of their range) insects won’t be as abundant and the mockingbirds will consume a wider variety of foods. Typical in their insect diet are large varieties of caterpillars, grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, spiders and weevils. The bulk of their diet consists of vegetable materials and fruits. Fruits they are especially fond of include, but are not limited to: blackberry, blueberry, raspberry, elderberry, mulberry, prickly pear fruit, poison ivy, holy, dogwood, smilax, multiflora rose, red cedar, and wax myrtle. In the backyard, fruit feeders filled with cut melons (especially watermelon), ripe peaches, pears, plums, apricots, nectarines, plumped raisins, overripe bananas, oranges and other sweet citrus, strawberries, grapes, and cherries will keep the Northern Mockingbird family happy.