Speaking of Nature: The grand deception of the northern mockingbird


For the Gazette

Published: 01-24-2023 4:03 PM

I have no idea how many photos exist in my personal collection, nor, I am afraid, will I ever know. I can say (definitively) that in the past 6 years I have taken exactly 104,308 photos, but that is where “exact” comes to a close. My records prior to 2017 are not exact. I do know that I have taken a minimum of 214,000 photos since 2011, but after that I really have no idea. I will conservatively estimate that my total number is somewhere around 400,000 since I started taking pictures in 1997.

The number of photos that I keep is far less than this, but if we estimate that I keep only 10 percent of them, that still leaves something like 40,000 in my files. A lot to keep track of! I do my best to categorize and file the photos in a database with enough information to be able to find them again, but there are still some photos that sit in obscurity, forgotten as the years have passed. This is why the occasional “rummage” through the collection is a good idea. Sometimes you find a treasure.

This week I share with you one such treasure; a photo that has languished in the quiet corners of my ever-growing collection for over a decade. I stumbled upon it while browsing for winter landscape photos and the moment I saw it I said, “Oh yeah, I remember you.” I figured that it must have been a long time since I might have used a photo from this particular collection, but when I checked I could find no record that any of the photos from this particular day had ever been used. It turns out that these photos were taken just a month after I had already published a column on the very same topic. Classic.

It was Christmas Day, 2011, and I was in Amherst with my family. Everyone had assembled at my parents’ house and my brother and I decided to go out to do some birding. This was an option because there was no snow on the ground at all. Does that sound familiar? Anyway, we were stopped at a spot where a line of trees cut through a field. The grand old maples marked a property line and beneath them grew a thicket of multi-floral rose, sumac and other “edge” flora. At this point I can’t remember why we stopped at this particular spot, but the collection of photos from that day feature only one bird: the northern mockingbird (Mimuspolyglottos).

Among the birds there are “characters” that stand out as particularly delightful. The northern mockingbird (henceforth the mockingbird) is one of these characters. Bright, buoyant and active, the mockingbird is one of those species that always makes me happy when I see one. I think it is the flashy markings on the wings that really get me excited. The general appearance of gray is easy to overlook, but when the mockingbird is in flight you can see two large white spots on each of the wings.

The bird lands in a bush, folds its wings and disappears as though it has activated a cloaking device.

Then it takes flight again and – BAM – there it is in all its glory.

A bird that is perfectly aligned with human activity, it benefits greatly from the terraforming that we do wherever we settle. We cut down trees and leave a few ornamentals here and there, we plant grass and put in gardens around our buildings and perhaps we even add the occasional water feature here and there. Golf courses, office parks, college campuses and suburban housing developments are perfect habitats for mockingbirds, but there is one hitch – elevation.

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Mockingbirds are creatures of the lowlands and regardless of the quality of the habitat you might have at your house you will not have any mockingbirds if you are above their preferred limit. I, for instance, have an amazing mockingbird habitat in my yard, but never any mockingbirds. I have catbirds and brown thrashers galore, but nary a mockingbird I have seen in the past 20 years. I’m up too high.

Go into town and I see them all the time around shopping centers.

But the most amazing thing about mockingbirds has to be their penchant for imitating other birds.

Their talent in this area is so profound that they have even been named “mocking” birds because they are able to do such an amazing job of copying the songs of the birds that live around them. Males do most of the singing and it is thought that they are trying to “fill” the landscape with birds to cut down on the number of competitors in their territories. Males constantly add new songs to their repertoire and may be able to “mock” as many as 200 other birds as they reach their prime.

So, I’m guessing that somewhere out there are a few people who are rolling their eyes and harumphing at the name mockingbird. After all, these are the birds that will often sing in the middle of the night during the summer, causing precious hours of sleep to be lost to their musical performances. Others, usually birders, are chuckling at the name mockingbird. How many times have you gone in search of a species to add to your spring bird list only to realize that you have been duped by a mockingbird?

Come on, be honest. I know that it has happened to me more than once.

The seasoned birder will not be fooled for long, however. Mockingbirds can do a wonderful job of imitating other species, but they do this in a very recognizable way. You may hear a bluebird, for instance, but the bluebird will only sing 5 to 6 times and then it will go quiet for a while. Then you will hear a phoebe, but again you will hear it 5 to 6 times and it, too, will go quiet. That’s when you begin to suspect that there is a mockingbird nearby. Just look for a confident gray bird perched conspicuously atop a tree, fence post or building and you will know. I swear that they actually take pleasure in fooling you; adding yet another meaning to the name mockingbird.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 25 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.