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The Mockingbird’s Song

May 25, 2014

On a warm spring day last week, I was working in my yard. I was weeding a flower bed and adding new plants to a small cottage garden. Down on my knees digging in the good earth, I enjoyed the smell of the soil, the gentle breeze at my back, and the songs of a mother wren tending her fledglings.

Suddenly in the distance I heard a loud disturbance. A pair of blue jays were squawking, a sure sign that something was threatening their nest. I looked around for Stormy, my garden feline. She was taking a catnap in the shade. I searched the sky above for an alien bird of prey. Maybe a hawk posed the threat. I saw nothing in flight or perched above the racket. Upon closer investigation I saw a black rat snake climbing a winged elm tree. The hungry serpent was anticipating a meal of young birds. Using a rake, I lifted the snake from the limb and moved it to the back of the property. As I did a mockingbird made several hostile passes at the intruder dangling from the end of my rake.

Before long, order was restored. The mockingbird found a perch high in a wild cherry tree and sang the rest of the afternoon.
A lady in our church takes her newspaper and a cup of freshly brewed coffee to her back porch every morning. “I always have my cell phone with me,” she explained. “I never know when one of my children might call.”

Early one sunny day as she enjoyed her coffee, she heard the familiar ringtone of her cell phone. She took the phone from her pocket. “I thought that the call had been lost. Then I heard the sound again,” she said. “It wasn’t my phone at all! It was a mockingbird ringing from high up in a sweet gum tree. That bird had heard my ringtone so often that he memorized it!”

The scientific name for the mockingbird is Mimus polyglottos, which comes from the Greek mimu, to mimic, and ployglottos, for many-tongued. The mockingbird’s song is a medley of the calls of other birds. The mockingbird imitates short units of sound, which it repeats several times before moving on to a new song.

Species with repetitive songs, such as the Carolina wren or the cardinal, are easily copied by the mockingbird. A mockingbird usually has 30 to 40 songs in its repertoire. These include other bird songs, insect or amphibian sounds, and even the noise of a squeaky gate or a car alarm.

The mockingbird is not only a good mimic, but it is also a loud, vocal bird. Unmated males often sing through the night, especially when the moon is full. These bachelors are singing to woo any available female.

I enjoy sitting in my backyard at night. It is my favorite time to meditate. Eighteen-wheel petroleum trucks groan by on the four-lane in front of our home. Long freight trains rumble along the tracks in back. Dogs bark in the distance. An occasional siren pierces the night, prompting the dogs to howl. I breathe a prayer for whatever family is involved in the emergency.
When these sounds fade away, I am treated to the symphony of nature. Bullfrogs in the pond and tree frogs in the woods are joined by crickets and cicadas in a chorus. In the spring whippoorwills sing from the meadow near the railroad track. Last week, beneath a bright moon, a mockingbird sang for hours from the top of a pecan tree.

The mockingbird is closely identified with the South, where it is a year-round resident. It is the state bird of Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas. My grandfather, a Tennessee native, told me it was his favorite bird. From him I learned to identify the mockingbird by the distinctive white chevron markings on the wings and the long tail that constantly moves up and down.

Mockingbirds have an adaptable diet. They eat insects in summer but switch to a menu of berries and seeds in winter.
Mockingbird males establish a nesting territory in early February. They tend to be monogamous. Both mates are involved in the nest-building. The male does most of the work while the female perches nearby to watch for predators. The nest is built 3 to 10 feet above the ground. The mother bird lays and incubates three to five eggs. Once the fledglings hatch, both the male and female feed them.

Mockingbirds aggressively defend their nest. I have seen a pair harass a red-tailed hawk until the encroacher left the territory. They have been known to peck bald spots on the rear end of a cat and inflict a wound on a dog that required stitches from a vet. Mockingbirds will even target humans, as my dear wife can attest. Clare walked though a gate into our backyard. Unbeknownst to her, she was too close to a nest. A mockingbird, diving like a kamikaze, struck her on the shoulder.

2010 marked the fiftieth anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee. The story’s hero, Atticus Finch, gives his children air rifles for Christmas, warning, “It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” A neighbor, Miss Maudie, explains to the children, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.”

Many know the song “Listen to the Mockingbird,” written by Alice Hawthorne in 1855. My favorite rendition is an instrumental guitar arrangement by Chet Atkins entitled “Hot Mockingbird.” In his recording, Chet makes his Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar sing like the gray and white bird.

Most parents have sung the “Mockingbird Lullaby” to their children. Carly Simon and James Taylor recorded a version that was a popular success in 1974. One of the joys of being a grandfather is singing to our grandchildren. They provide the only audience that will listen to my warbles without complaining.

Recently Clare and I were babysitting for our granddaughter Caroline. After she had supper and a bath, a fresh diaper, and clean pajamas, I took her upstairs to bed. We followed the usual routine, a sip of water, a favorite book, a little rocking chair time, and a song.

I started the lullaby.

Hush, little baby, don’t say a word.
Papa’s going to buy you a mockingbird.

Outside of the bedroom window from the top of a sassafras tree, Caroline and I heard the sweet music of a mockingbird. We listened together for a few minutes. I put Caroline in her bed. Without a whimper she closed her eyes and went to sleep, serenaded by the mockingbird’s song.


Kirk H. Neely
©  May 2014

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