Bear with me here. Common yellowthroats are abundant in eastern Maine. So are Wal-Marts. However, the moment I heard the small warbler perform its typical witchity-witchity-witch song, it hit me immediately: where are the bushes? Common yellowthroats are ubiquitous in thick shrubbery. You really can’t go anywhere without finding one. But there are no bushes in Bangor’s Wal-Mart parking lot.
Then I heard an eastern phoebe. The problem is, phoebes finished singing a month ago. The nestlings have fledged, there’s no further need to find a mate or protect a territory, so there’s no real need to sing, especially in the Wal-Mart parking lot.
Then I laughed. Of course, it was a northern mockingbird. It took me a moment to realize the yellowthroat and phoebe were repeating their songs a little too much and a little too quickly. Furthermore, the songs were absolutely perfect. Too perfect.
Northern mockingbirds are mimics. They belong to the family Mimidae. (I throw in some Latin to make my columns appear more educated.) Besides mockingbirds, the mimic family includes thrashers and catbirds. Brown thrashers and gray catbirds are residents of our area. They also steal songs from other birds, though neither can match the mockingbird for virtuosity.
Or repetitiveness. A couple of years ago, I stayed at a bed-and-breakfast in Deer Isle, unfortunately sharing my windowsill with a gray catbird. It began singing at 4:30 a.m., and it had a fondness for black-throated green warblers. It threw the familiar zee-zee-zee-zoo-zee phrase into the middle of every song, but it included the phrase only once per song.
Brown thrashers mimic, and they often repeat phrases within a song, though no more than twice. The mockingbird repeats each phrase five or more times before switching. It’s a dead giveaway.
There are about 16 mockingbird species, mostly in Central and South America. Even the northern mockingbird was a southern bird, until it began moving north in the last century. Its preference for urban landscapes helped it move into all 50 states as Americans sprawled out. Its range now stretches from Mexico to Canada and all parts in between, yet its southern roots are showing: It is the official state bird in Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas.
In Maine, the northern mockingbird is mostly an urban dweller. I snicker whenever I see the individual that inhabits the shrubbery behind the post office in Medway, because it is unusual to see it somewhere other than the Bangor Mall.
The mockingbird’s vocal prowess got it into trouble in the 1800s. So many were captured and sold as caged birds that they nearly disappeared in the East. Market hunters would even steal babies out of nests. Their population dipped again over the last 50 years due to habitat loss in their historical range. Numbers now seem to be stable and, judging by the population around the mall, increasing.
Both sexes sing, though the male sings more. Until he finds a mate, a male mockingbird may sing around the clock. Both genders aggressively defend territory, so the female’s singing is likely intended to ward off intruders. Typically, males fend off other males and females drive away females. Naturally, this kind of behavior encourages mockingbirds to form long-term monogamous relationships.
Mockingbirds are smarter than many birds. They can recognize individual humans and react accordingly, depending on whether that human has been a previous source of benevolence or annoyance. This compatibility with people has earned the bird a titled place in both music and literature.
What amuses me most about the mockingbird’s mimic ability is that it can sing another bird’s song better than the original bird can. A couple of years ago, while pumping gas at Sam’s Club, I watched – literally watched – a mockingbird imitate a killdeer. Yet it was so perfect I found myself looking behind the bird to see if there really was a killdeer back there.
On my birdathon this year, we tallied a mockingbird in the Sears parking lot that was singing the song of an alder flycatcher so perfectly the flycatchers must have felt inadequate.
Mockingbirds can learn up to 200 songs, and even non-songs, such as car alarms. If someone lives next to a mimic that can perfectly imitate a car alarm and repeats it endlessly before dawn, To Kill A Mockingbird becomes more than just a book title.
Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.