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Brooklyn Bird Watch: April 4

Northern Mockingbird. Scientific Name: Mimus polyglottos

April 4, 2022 By Joseph Palmer
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Today, Brooklyn Bird Watch features a Heather Wolf photo of a Northern Mockingbird photographed in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Since I spend lots of time in Florida, I am proud to point out that the Northern Mockingbird is our State Bird, and there are four other southern states that claim this interesting bird as their official state bird; Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas.

The scientific name means “many-tongued thrush.”

And springtime is an appropriate time to feature this bird, as the Cornell Lab points out; “If you’ve been hearing an endless string of 10 or 15 different birds singing outside your house, you might have a Northern Mockingbird in your yard. These slender-bodied, predominantly gray birds apparently pour all their color into their personalities. They sing almost endlessly, even sometimes at night, and they flagrantly harass birds that intrude on their territories, flying slowly around them or prancing toward them, legs extended, flaunting their bright white wing patches.”

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When I spend time in Florida I stay in a building that’s built like an amphitheater partially surrounding a courtyard filled with lots of large thick shrubs, and it’s a regular nesting landscape for several Mockingbirds, a Brown Thrasher, and more recently, small flocks of sparrows. Sometimes one can see a male Northern Cardinal fly through the courtyard but the cardinals spend most of their time and nest in the nearby landscapes where there are more clusters of trees and large bushes separating the neighborhood lots.

During early spring every year the behavior the Cornell Lab describes regarding the Mockingbird’s singing, happens in our courtyard.  It starts in the early morning, sometimes as early as five o’clock, the Mockingbird sings its heart out non-stop for at least an hour from the top of the light pole on the edge of the courtyard. The singing is melodic and can be easily heard from inside the apartments, and out in the open air leaning on the balcony rail with a cup of coffee, when there’s almost no traffic, it’s really loud, yet mesmerizing.”

I’m not sure anyone knows exactly why the Mockingbird does this controlled, frenetic sounding ritual. One thing is certain though, it’s melodic and fascinating, and the theories that it’s either a territorial statement, or the bird just likes to celebrate spring  and the sunrise by practicing other bird songs and sounds it heard the day before, I mean, either reason makes sense to me.

To further prove this point, as Cornell notes, there was a time when “in the nineteenth century, people kept so many mockingbirds as cage birds that the birds nearly vanished from parts of the East Coast. People took nestlings out of nests or trapped adults and sold them in cities such as Philadelphia, St. Louis, and New York, where, in 1828, these extraordinary singers could fetch as much as $50.”  Today it is illegal to own or capture a mockingbird in the United States.

And these birds continually add new sounds to their repertoires throughout their life span. It is said that a male Mockingbird will learn as many as 200 songs. The female doesn’t sing as much or as loud as the male. She sings mostly in the fall when the male is away from the nest. Cornell says the male also might have two repertoires, one for the spring, and one for the fall.

They are primarily brownish-grey with white wing bars and a white patch on their long tail that are visible both when the bird perches and when flying. They also have a peculiar behavior and no one yet seems to know for sure what the bird is doing. While walking the Mockingbird will stop and slowly spread it wings out. Some say it’s a hunting tactic to startle unseen insects out into the open.

Audubon tells us the Mockingbird is bold in defense of their nests, attacking cats and even humans that venture too close. Where I live the Mockingbird obviously feels he owns the courtyard, as I often see them chasing crows away.

Once the caged bird trade stopped the mocking bird again became common in many areas.  During recent decades it has expanded its range north, especially in the northeast. Its success there may have been partly owing to widespread planting of multi-flora rose, a source for the Mockingbird’s favorite berry and nesting place.

On one of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Blogs there is a New York perspective on the range expansion of the Northern Mockingbird: “In the early 20th century, the northern mockingbird was uncommon in New York, but that began to change with the spread of the multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), an Asian species that was planted in great numbers as a quick hedge starting in the 1930s. The northern mockingbird loves to eat the hips of this rose—it will find a stand of multiflora rosebushes and defend the surrounding area against all comers.

Mockingbirds are also considered to be very smart birds. Studies have proven that Northern Mockingbirds not only recognize individuals of potentially dangerous behavior, but remember an individual’s past behavior and will single them out for attack.

The good news for bird lovers is that regarding survival and extinction, the Northern Mockingbird’s status is of “least concern.”

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