Thursday, May 31, 2007


We are currently overrun with mockingbirds. They were dropping from the sky on Sunday while I was spreading mulch (actually dropping from their nest in the crabapple tree), watching me weed while perched on a tomato cage in the garden, treating us to serenades at all hours of the day. The picture is of the one of the three babies that fledged on Sunday. It didn’t survive. Don’t think I’m morbid for photographing a recently deceased bird. I just like to get a really close look at them. I noticed they have attractive black whiskers and wonder what they are for. I was surprised by the size of the fledglings.

We have the Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) living among us and it is one of my favorite birds. For the past three years it was a single male. Never any babies. Well apparently this spring a lady mocker showed up and I’ve also seen other adult mockingbirds flitting about flashing their white wing bars. I wonder how many mockingbirds we can support here? Mockingbirds establish a breeding territory in the spring, different from a territory used in the fall and winter that is centered around a food source. My mockingbird’s food territory for the last three years has been our crabapple trees which usually retain their fruit well through the winter. Many mornings in late winter I could lay in bed and watch out the window as this single mockingbird valiantly defended his food source from small bands of Blue jays to crows. Mockingbirds also depend on Pokeweed, poison ivy, Virginia Creeper, and Hollies.

Some mockingbirds mate for life and remain together at all times, others separate in winter to establish their separate feeding territories.
Mockingbirds can incorporate from 50 to 200 sounds or calls in their repertoire, gaining more experience with age. While usually I appreciate and look forward to this serenade, out mockingbird has decided that night time is the right time for his particular repertoire and sings from 2 to 4 a.m. approximately 8 feet from our bedroom window. This has happened for the last several nights. This is not uncommon behavior for male mockingbirds, particularly unattached males in and around the full moon. Which doesn’t happen until tonight. Because I could not sleep I decided to see how many bits and pieces of bird call I could identify of his lineup. I could make out a robin, a chickadee, a cardinal, a blue jay, a flicker, a red tail hawk, and sadly, what sounded for all the world like a car alarm. I say hello to him every time he is around with the hopes that one day, my hello will make it into his song list.

Did you know that there was such a large market for caged mockingbirds in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that they were completely extirpated around large cities such as Philadelphia and St. Louis? I guess that is the era which the lullaby comes from, about buying a mockingbird and what would happen if it didn't sing.
Click here to listen to a sound recording of a mockingbird call.

Speaking of birds, I watched the documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill last night. I loved it. Check it out if you can.


Blogger El said...

Wow, aren't you full of fun mockingbird facts today? I think their whiskers are for catching bugs, or at least that's the purpose they serve on nightjars and the like. Maybe it helps the babies get their food?

I saw a cedar waxwing yesterday. They're so much bigger than you think.

I saw the parrot show, too. My aunt has the yellow ones, and she lives in Chicago. There are a couple of flocks of weird parrot things living in Hyde Park there, but she lives nowhere near there.

You know, you're the closest person I know who has an Annie Dillard kind of natural observation level.

2:13 PM  
Blogger Faith said...

I love mockingbirds. For some reason, just knowing that they're up in the middle of the night when the rest of the world is asleep, shouting out their news and not caring who hears it makes me smile. And I was even one of those people who had a mockingbird nest in the tree outside her bedroom window.

I never knew they had whiskers, though. I always thought that mockingbirds were also called catbirds, and maybe it's because of their whiskers. However, a quick check of Wikipedia is not backing me up on this mockingbird = catbird thing, so I'm probably wrong.

2:14 PM  
Blogger meresy_g said...

I wish I could write like Ms. Dillard. Picking up dead birds is one thing, writing something eloquent about the experience is something else. I did find a mockingbird quote from her:

"No; we have been as usual asking the wrong question. It does not matter a hoot what the mockingbird on the chimney is singing. The real and proper question is: Why is it beautiful?"

Catbirds are roughly the same size as mockingbirds, so it is easy to get confused. Catbirds are sort of a solid slatey gray color and are more often heard than seen. I have one that scurries around my perennial beds to get to the birdbaths, instead of just flying up to it. And sometimes they sound for all the world like kittens. Or maybe it is a mockingbird imitating a catbird.

2:43 PM  
Blogger Angie said...

Thanks for all of the Mockingbird info! We have one too, must be a male, and during the last full moon (have one tonight too...hmmmm, wonder if he will decide it's the night (morning) to sing to me LOL) he did the same thing here in the middle of the night!! From about 3 a.m. until around 5 a.m. :D

3:25 PM  
Blogger Liz said...

I knew there was something on PBS I was supposed to tape the other night! Damn! Guess I'll have to check the library.

I have an ornithologist friend who has a collection of dead birds in the freezer. It's cool, but yet creepy.

Love all the mockingbird info! :)

5:26 PM  
Blogger Xris said...

We have both mockingbirds and catbirds here in Brooklyn, and both visit us in our backyard.

The catbirds are significantly smaller than the mockingbirds. The mockingbirds are large, blue jay-sized, while the catbirds are smaller, no larger than a robin.

Listening to them it's hard to tell them apart. I've come to recognize a few distinct catbird sounds which I've never heard from our mockingbirds.

6:55 PM  
Blogger keryn said...

My sister is an aspiring bird illustrator and has kept several bird bodies in her freezer, while she completed the proportional sketches. She just had to be careful to warn the family they were there; you'd think teenage boys would be a cool with an avocet next to the pizza....

Her friends were vets, and when they had to euthenase wild birds they would give a call to see if she wanted the body, so they were never decomposing or anything!

8:29 PM  
Blogger cyndy said...

" what sounded for all the world like a car alarm."...this reminds me of the mockingbird at my parents farm. It loved to sit in the cherry tree and sing. One year, it learned to sing the ringtone on my brothers cell phone!

7:06 AM  
Anonymous Sandy said...

We have lots more than usual, too! I wonder what is going on?

I didn't know they were ever used as caged birds. If they sing anything like the ones we have here, I would be releasing mine pretty darn fast.

5:11 PM  
Blogger woof nanny said...

Oh, that makes me sad. I love mockingbirds. I love all birds actually.

1:44 AM  
Blogger Kitt said...

Aw, poor thing.

I had a pair of blue jays set up housekeeping in the spruce next to the house I just moved out of and am sorry I will miss the advent of the babies, and the antics of their parents chasing the squirrels away. They are fearless.

12:19 PM  
Blogger Rurality said...

I heard our local Mocker imitating a Chuck Will's Widow today! Thought that was pretty cool. Oh and he's doing a lot of picky-tuk nowdays too (Summer Tanager).

And BTW posting pics of dead birds is a perfectly normal thing. :)

10:06 PM  
Blogger Annie in Austin said...

A couple of years ago a Mockingbird crashed into the breakfast room window while chasing an insect - I didn't have a digital camera then, and am not sure I would have thought to take a photo.
They're at this house, too, and kept us awake in spring, but it's A/C time now, so if the mockers are singing to the full moon, I can't hear it.
Last night we watched a rather silly but sweet movie called "Failure to Launch" in which one character was getting punchy from no sleep, courtesy of a mockingbird. I'm not sure if the song was real, but some of it sounded like a catbird that used to live outside our door. Did anyone else see the movie and hear the bird?

Maybe you should name your house place Tinker Creek, Rurality ~

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

11:24 PM  
Blogger Blackswamp_Girl said...

Well, if the mocker can imitate a car alarm, I would think that your "hello" would be an easy enough achievement for him. I hope you hear it one day... or should I say one night? Preferably a night when you don't have to get up early the next day. :)

I love the way you explore your entire garden. Living, dead, tangible or intangible. That's a lot of what keeps me coming back here... you feed my curiosity about the natural world.

10:27 AM  
Blogger Deborah Halbrook said...

I live in Florence, Ms. Yesterday we had a thunderstorm with very strong winds. The storm demolished
a Mocking bird nest with new babies in the birch tree outside our den window. There was another nest in the same tree that they had recently raised babies in .I retreived the babies from the ground, they were cold and drenched from the rain.I Placed them in the older nest with hopes that the birds would come back and save them. After about 5 minutes low in behold there she was sitting on the side of the nest checking out the babies. After several trips back and forth, it wasn't long till she was sitting on the babies to get them warm. At dusk dark she was still on the nest. I was so pleased and excited, as I was sure she would abandon them after being touched by a human. Will keep watch on the nest to see how she makes out with saving her babies. Thank God I was able to be a part in saving the babies. An experience I will always treasure.OH!!!!! there are 5 babies.

5:50 AM  

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