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THE MOCKINGBIRD’S SONG

May 2, 2020

On a cool Saturday morning last month, I ate breakfast on our back porch with two of our granddaughters. The sun was shining brightly.  Our redbud tree was in full bloom, branches decorated like a purplish-pink curtain. The yellow jasmine was just beginning to show color. A Delaware azalea was all aglow. A brilliant red cardinal, having a breakfast of black sunflower seeds, chirped at the feeder. A mother wren was busy constructing her nest in the eave of our barn, pausing briefly now and then to sing her clear-throated melody.

In the distance, I heard a pair of blue jays squawking, a sure sign that something was threatening their nest. I looked around for Stormy, the feline who usually patrols our garden. She was taking a catnap in the shade.

The Carolina wren and the cardinal fell silent. I searched the sky above for an alien bird of prey. I saw nothing in flight.  But I spied a red-tailed hawk in an oak tree high above the ruckus.  I pointed out the large bird to the girls. Just as they looked up, suddenly, the flash of white chevrons on gray wings took aim at the hawk. The fearless mockingbird made several hostile passes as the intruder took to the air, winging its way across our back fence, over the railroad track, to another tree far, far away.

When order was restored, the cardinal returned to the feeder. The wren continued her domestic duties. And, the mockingbird found a perch high in a wild cherry tree. The birds blended their songs into a Saturday morning backyard concert.

The scientific name for the mockingbird is Mimus polyglottos, which comes from the Greek mimus, to mimic, and polyglottos, 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.

A lady in our acquaintance 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 mockingbird is not only an excellent mimic, but it is also a loud, raucous 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 railroad tracks in the 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 in a chorus by crickets and cicadas. In the spring, whip-poor-wills sing from the meadow at the back of our property.  Last week, beneath a bright moon, a mockingbird sang for hours perched in 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 continually moves up and down.

Mockingbirds enjoy 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 four to ten 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 frequently seen a pair harass a black crow 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 through 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. In the story, 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 corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.”

Many know the song “Listen to the Mockingbird.” The lyrics were written in 1855 by Septimus Winner under the pseudonym Alice Hawthorne. Richard Milburn composed the music. It was one of the favorite ballads of the nineteenth century and sold more than twenty million copies of sheet music.  It was popular during the American Civil War and was used as marching music. Abraham Lincoln was said to be especially fond of the song, saying, “It is as sincere as the laughter of a little girl at play.”

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 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.

Several years ago, Clare and I were babysitting for one of our young granddaughters. After she had supper and a bath 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, a prayer, 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, we heard the sweet music of a mockingbird. We listened together for a few minutes. I put our granddaughter in her bed. Without a whimper, she closed her eyes and went to sleep, serenaded by the mockingbird’s song.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

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