Photo by Doris Evans
Article By Jon Friedman
Mockingbirds belong to the family of birds called Mimidae (MIM-ih-dee) which includes 31 species in the Western Hemisphere and to which eleven call North America home. Other members include the catbirds and the thrashers, some warblers and vireos, thrushes, and starlings among others. Parrots and mynahs, other well-known non-Mimidae “mimics,” have only been found to copy vocalizations in captivity. By comparison, the average male Marsh Warbler mimics seventy-six other species. In fact, sonographic studies of this bird’s songs have shown that almost the entire repertoire has been pilfered from other birds. A study found that the warbler sang the songs of nearly one hundred nearby species as well as more than one hundred species from another continent where it winters (and where it incidentally does not sing).
Originally known as a resident bird of the southeastern United States, the Northern Mockingbird range has spread across the continent from extreme southeastern Canada and New England, dipping into the mid-western heartland, and west to the California coast. However, it is generally not found in the Sierras of the northern and central parts of the state, or in the Pacific Northwest.
Foraging techniques are similar to other Mimidae as well, in that they feed mostly on, or close to, the ground. They use their sturdy bills to toss leaves and sticks while raking the dirt in search of food. Diets vary by season and location but are composed of mostly of insects (especially grasshoppers, beetles, spiders and grubs) and fruits, especially native berries of all sorts that, at times, may be 50% of their dietary intake. Among their favorite fruits are blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, holly berries, pokeberries, raspberries, hackberries, elderberries, mulberries, bay berries, berries of poison ivy, apples, cactus fruits, watermelons and even grapes. Additionally, they eat the like of palmettos, persimmons, manzanitas, and California pepper tree berries. Backyard birders can attract mockers to raisins. Plump the raisins by allowing them to soak overnight to enlarge and soften the fruits. Other common prey items include weevils, caterpillars, crayfishes, sow bugs, June beetles, Japanese beetles, rose beetles, cotton-boll weevils, wireworms, crickets, cankerworms, cutworms, leafhoppers, cicadas and snails. They have also been known to take lizards, geckos, salamanders, tree frogs, and even small snakes. On the ground, while foraging they dart about, running and hopping, stopping and raising up their wings, archangel-like, revealing flashes of large white wing patches, then lunging onto startled and flushed insect prey. They have also been known to leap into the air to capture low flying insects and snag fruits or berries off low branches.
Not unlike quail, they will run rather than fly to escape danger. Tails are raised while running. Flight is generally low and swift, gliding to a landing. Northern Mockingbirds have distinctive white wing patches (sometimes confusing birders who may mistake them for shrikes). Unlike most of the thrashers that have longer, curved bills, the mockers have strong, stout, short but relatively straight bills.
Adults have dark gray wings with prominent white wing bars, gray to almost blue-gray above and light gray to whitish on their undersides. They also exhibit a thin, dark line through the eyes to the bill. Juveniles look much like adults after they outgrow their faint, brownish-gray breast spots.
Their Latin name, originally Greek, means “many-tongued mimic.” This is obviously in reference to their amazing vocal talents. It is one of the most widely-known and popular songbirds in America, first discovered over 250 years ago by Mark Catesby, an English ornithologist, who gave it its original name, the “Mock-bird of Carolina.” Beloved in the American South, it is the official bird of several southern states. For unknown reasons, it seems to prefer nocturnal singing when the full moon lights up the night sky. Many detailed descriptions of mockers singing all night from perches among the magnolias and moss-covered live oaks exist in southern literature, folklore and stories.
In all the world, each continent has its share of mimics. Many ornithologists and birders would agree, the Northern Mockingbird might be the best singer of all! Aside from its ability to mimic expertly the songs and calls of other species, and a host of other sounds, their singing voice is beautiful to hear, melodious and sweet. They can sing for hours at a time, starting an hour or two before sun-up, throughout the day, and ending an hour or two after dusk. Sometimes they perform throughout the entire night!
While living in Bisbee many years ago, neighbors in my canyon complained, for over two weeks straight, that mockingbird singing kept them up or were disturbing their sleep. There was a large, old Black Walnut tree next to my house and a large limb was an arm’s length from outside my second floor bedroom window. The “problem” was a young male mocker singing all night with the intention of attracting a mate. I am not sure whether he was successful, but after two weeks of beautiful singing, it stopped. I was perfectly happy to have had this bird sing such wonderful songs – like a baby’s lullaby, those liquid melodies seemed to insure my good sleep. Perfect music to sleep by for a birder!
Big Avian Songbook
Mockingbirds have the largest repertoire of all our songbirds, hands down. Excellent mimics, they can recall and perform nearly any birdcall, song or other sound they have heard, even just once! Experts have determined that their mimicry of sounds is so expertly copied or imitated that an electronic analysis cannot detect any difference from the original! It is estimated that they know or learn dozens of birdcalls and songs while juveniles and continue to add to their collection all their lives. Some mockers learn hundreds of songs in their lifetime. One mockingbird was observed imitating the songs of a species that lived hundreds of miles away. How it learned those songs remains a mystery. Typically, mockers will intersperse their own songs into long threads of other songs and calls. The usual pattern of song is composed of song phrases and calls, repeated quickly several times in a row, then changing to another, then another, and so on. Quite often, this could go on for 20-30 minutes before a short break and then resuming. This type of behavior can happen any time of year but is most pronounced before and during breeding season.
Types of Song
The types and numbers of sounds mockers make are infinite and continuously growing. They are known to have the ability to imitate nearly any and all bird sounds they have heard. Once sung, they remember exactly how to replicate that sound. However, it seems that each time they sing, they rearrange the order and sequence of the musical phrasing – hence, they never sing the same songs twice! They do include their own songs and calls into these sequences. Experts estimate up to about 20% is their own original material. Northern Mockingbird songs are usually long and complex, composed of warbles, squeaks, guttural notes and musical and melodious phrases lasting 10-20 minutes. They have been known to sing for hours, even overnight for continuous nights.
Calls and Other Sounds
Woven into many of their songs are other, non-bird sounds. These can include nearly any sounds the birds have heard, even just once. In addition, the sounds are authentic and convincing. A woman gardening in her yard quickly goes to answer her phone, only to find it was a mockingbird making the sound of a ringing phone. They can mimic the sound of a car’s backfire, a creaky gate closing, a cat’s meow or a dog’s bark, human words or phrases, sounds of common farm animals like the cackling of a hen or the sounds of pigs or sheep, the postman’s whistle, piano and other musical instrument sounds, the sound of an axe splitting wood, the honk of a car horn, the gurgling sound of flowing water, the sounds of the city and most other sounds they experience in their environment.
Conservationists have been keenly aware of, and monitoring, their declining population over recent decades. Throughout much of the continent, deforestation and urban sprawl have claimed much of the habitat they used to occupy. Here in Arizona, the continual growth of urban centers, particularly Tucson and Phoenix, have left less and less natural habitat for these birds to flourish. Providing food and nesting materials will assist our local birds in securing stable population numbers.
Other Mockingbird Species
Mockingbirds are known simply as “mockingbirds.” They can be a relatively common species in their normal range, but their formal name, the Northern Mockingbird, distinguishes this species from two others that are found occasionally in North America.
The Blue Mockingbird, a resident bird in nearby Mexico, is sometimes found in Southern Arizona. They have been recorded as accidental species that have been known to inhabit our area for up to four months at a time, usually in winter and early fall (from December to May)– although they have been sighted as early as September. They prefer foothill canyons with thornscrub on the slopes. Blue Mockingbirds have been observed at some of Arizona’s birding hotspots such as Sonoita Creek near Patagonia, the Portal area of Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains, and the Slaughter Ranch adjacent to the San Bernardino Wildlife Refuge east of Douglas. The first verified sightings occurred in December 1991 on Sonoita Creek. Another sighting, possibly of two birds, occurred at the Slaughter Ranch in 2009. They typically inhabit habitat from between 3500 and 5000 feet in elevation.
The Bahama Mockingbird is native to several Caribbean islands, particularly most of the Bahama Islands (not found on Grand Bahama, Bimini, Cat Cay and Grand Abaco islands), several islands off northern Cuba and southern Jamaica. The first record of a North American sighting was one seen and described in great detail on East Key, Dry Tortugas, Florida on May 3, 1973. It is slightly larger than the other mockingbirds and, unlike them, does not mimic the songs and calls of other birds.
Several other differences distinguish these species from the Northern Mockingbird, particularly overall colors, field marks and size. However, they clearly demonstrate that they are truly mockingbirds in most other respects.