Clellie Lynch: Mock-bird of Carolina pays us a visit
EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. — Blam! Blam! the deer hunting season begins! As the palest of light slips over the horizon, I am up and about, but definitely not ready to take a morning walk along my road. As the dawn grows lighter, I watch the woods behind the house take on a wash of browns and greens, as if it were an outdoor stage set appearing before me as the curtain rises. There is no movement, no bird song, only the echo of that rifle shot.
The day is lovely definitely time for a walk. Danny and I head to Ooms Pond (sometimes called Sutherland Pond on maps) in Old Chatham for a walk around the water and across the open fields. By the time we park the car, soft gray clouds have drifted in. The path is a bit snowy and icy as we mosey along surrounded with shoulder-high stalks of withered goldenrod and asters. The pond is frozen. There are no birds about.
Then as we crest the central hill with its 360 view, we scan the skies and silhouetted trees. I hear bluebirds burbling. Danny points to a stand of nearby trees and there they are all 30 of them, flying from treetop to treetop and switching places with one another all the while singing. The closer we get the bluer they seem. As we come around the pond, we find a flock of robins flying low through the trees.
BIRD OF MANY TONGUES
Driving back along the dirt road abutting the preserve, a bird dashes in front of us and then up to a telephone wire. It lands, bobbing back and forth to gets its balance. "Look at that long tail," I say, "It must be a mocker!" Danny stops the car and we watch for a minute or so and then it flits away from us, wings flashing white as it disappears over the hill. This is in the exact place we saw one ten years ago!
A mockingbird! a bird we only ever occasionally observe here in the Berkshires. Often we will find one, usually only one, for our birdathon in May and then, like now, another one in the fall or winter. David St James in his "Annotated List of the Birds of Berkshire County, Massachusetts" designates this species as an uncommon resident.
From the 1700s, when Mark Catesby first described the species as the "Mock-Bird of Carolina," this avian has been a favorite of ornithologists, birders and even non-birders. Why mock-bird, this superb and unrivaled songster? Not only is he a sweet singer of songs of his own making, he can imitate any variety of songs, calls and sounds. And not only imitate, but he remembers each one, building throughout the seasons an amazing repertoire! Native Americans called this bird "cencontlatolly" which translates to "400 tongues," recognizing these creatures as the amazing musicial geniuses that they are.
In the 18th century, ornithologists thought that this beautiful songster was related to the thrush, hence naming it mockingthrush. Now this species is categorized in a separate New World family, the Mimidae, the mimics which include the thrashers and the catbird. Officially, in current field guides such as Sibley's, it is the northern mockingbird, Mimus polyglottus the many-tongued mimic.
If you read the literature, you might come across this bird as the gray mockingbird, JP Girard Jr (1844), Peterson (1947). Or as the eastern mockingbird, Bent (1948). Or just plain mockingbird Gruson (1972). Curious that it has become the northern mockingbird even though from the earliest of times it was noted by the likes of Catesby and Audubon as very definitely a southern bird. Five states designate this as their state bird: Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Florida and Texas.
But since early in the 20th century the mocker has been movin' on up. These birds are not particularly disturbed by cultivated or suburban areas. Though if you approach a nest on your property you may come under attack. "In Birds on the Move, a Guide to New England's Avian Invaders," Neal Clark mentions that the influx of nesting mockingbirds in New England started in the 1950s, perhaps coinciding with the introduction in the 1930s of the multiflora rose as farm hedging. Mockers like to nest protected in these thorny tangles. Others have suggested these birds followed the plantings along the interstate highway system.
The mockingbird is a slim, robin-sized bird with a gray, white and black plumage not to be confused with the gray, white and black of a shrike. Look to the bill: long and slender for the mockingbird, hooked for the shrike. Also note the stance of the bird. The mocker tends to be more horizontal, while the shrike perches more vertically.
The mocker can sing like a robin, chirr like a cricket, shriek like a killdeer, cockadoodle doo like a rooster, cackle like a hen, strum like a guitar, plonk like a piano, pock-pock like a tennis match, bark like a dog — it leaves the meowing to its mimic relative, the catbird. Although many have associated this bird with thrushes, recent DNA-DNA hybridization studies place it closer to the starling. Mr. Mockingbird — and Mrs, too — are superb singers that fill their days and nights, with voices, "full, strong, musical and capable of endless variation in modulation." Some claim they cover the songs they imitate better that the original feathered artiste.
In 1922, C.L. Whittle, in an article about the well-studied Arnold Arboretum Mockingbird, created a list of birds that this versatile male sung during his arboretum years including 39 bird songs, 50 bird calls and the notes of frogs and crickets. I wonder if you could figure out where the mockingbird had been that he picked up the sounds, calls, clucks and songs of so many different birds as varied as ducks and doves, cardinals and cuckoos, swallows and sparrows, wrens, kinglets, kingbirds and kingfishers. I checked the list and no bobolink imitation. Hmmmm. That would be a tough one!
Having listened to many mockers growing up on Long Island, I find that when you hear a mockingbird no matter what song it is singing, it has a particular sweet tone that makes it immediately identifiable as a mocker. 20
To quote the poet Mary Oliver: "This morning/two mockingbirds/in the green field/were spinning and tossing/the white ribbons/of their song/into the air./I had nothing/better to do
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.
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