“He rocks in the tree tops all day long. Hoppin’ and a-boppin’ and a-singing his song.”
This song, originally by Bobby Day and later reprised by the Jackson 5 always seemed like it should have been about a mockingbird. But then, without the robin, the alliteration wouldn’t work.
Still, when it comes to local birds that can really rock a song, the Northern Mockingbird has to be number one on the charts. Ornithologist Frank M. Chapman even referred to it as our “national songbird.”
And what a repertoire. How many songs can an American Robin sing? One? Or two? Maybe three or four if you count what are called the “dawn” or “whisper” songs. Some Northern Mockingbirds have song lists in excess of two-hundred!
And what credit does the mockingbird get? The claim has been made that its “song largely consists of multiple plagiarisms”. In other words, the bird copies the songs of other birds.
The Native Americans had a different take on this entirely. According to their legends, it was the mockingbird who taught all the other birds to sing, making them the plagiarists. Unfortunately, this only goes so far and doesn’t explain when the mockingbird sounds like squealing car tires or a squeaky gate hinge.
Native Americans may also have given the bird its name. Their “artamoke” was easily translated to “mocker”. According to Mark Catesby in his Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (1731- 1743), the aborigines called it cencontlatolly or fourhundred tongues. That has a nice ring to it too.
Catesby is credited by some as the person who first named the “mock-bird”, however, early explorer-naturalist John Lawson was way ahead of him there. The checklist of species published in 1709 as part of his New Voyage to Carolina included “mocking-birds, two sorts”. One has to wonder about the “two sorts” part. Lawson might have explained later (or complained about Catesby getting all the credit) had he not been burned alive by members of the Tuscarora tribe in 1711.
Mark Catesby was probably the first Englishman to draw the Northern Mockingbird though. Unfortunately, his illustration does not capture the large white wing and tail patches, leaving the bird a rather dull gray. Of course, these patches are mostly visible in flight. Catesby’s bird would have been a “collected” specimen. To give him the benefit of the doubt, he does mention the white in his description.
Those white wing patches may help make the Northern Mockingbird a more efficient predator. While feeding on the ground, it spreads its wings, displaying the patches. The sudden flash of white may startle insects into movement, making them easier targets.
Mockingbird diets are made up of about 50% animal and 50% vegetable, although the vegetable may have a slight edge. In Summer, Fall, and Winter, fruits fill the menu card.
These may include those of hollies, greenbriers, sumacs, pokeweeds, blackberries, elderberries, grapes, etc. One theory claims that part of the reason for the mockingbird’s northern expansion has been that of the Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora). The birds just followed the plant.
Not only are the Multiflora Rose hips a great source of nourishment, the thorny branches provide protection for nests. Speaking of nests and nesting, this is something most Northern Mockingbirds commence in late April or May. A male will get the ball rolling by staking out a territory of from one to two acres. He then proceeds to (What else?) sing. He sings loud and clear, putting all his various “voices” into it. Some aerial loop flights are also thrown in for good measure.
The female cannot resist all of this and once the male has roughed out a nest platform as high as ten feet up in a shrub, tree, or vine, she lines it with grasses, plant stems, and rootlets before laying four eggs. These are a nice shade of blue-green with heavy brown spotting. Incubation takes about 12 days. The female is responsible for this. Both parents, however, feed the young birds until they fledge 12 days later.
Northern Mockingbirds are subject to the usual nest predators. These include snakes, raccoons, opossums, Blue Jays, and domestic cats. The Brown-headed Cowbird, however, rarely parasitizes a mockingbird nest.
Nestlings are fed insect material for the first week or so. Once they develop what is known as endothermy or body temperature control they then get an increasing amount of fruit in their diets. Even after the birds fledge, the male will continue topping them off for another month while he and the female build a new nest and start a second brood.
As Fall approaches, the birds become more territorial, staking their claim to a particular fruit bearing tree or shrub. While the male became quiet during the nesting season, both males and females now sing vigorously in defense of their territories. After all, those berries will have to last all Winter and mockingbirds aren’t really good at sharing.
In Colonial times, the Northern Mockingbird was primarily a southern species. It has only been since the 1900s that the bird has seriously extended its range north into New England and Canada. Some of those northern birds migrate south in winter, especially the females and juveniles.
On a range map, today it still appears as a year-round resident mainly from Mexico, the Bahamas, and the lower half of the United States. It is one of the most popular State birds, having been proclaimed as such by the legislatures of Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas.
Northern Mockingbirds have been known to live in the wild for up to 12 years.