Garden notes: July Fifth, 2008 –Mockingbird takes up residence at 1 Stone Street garden

visit from a mockingbird

visit from a mockingbird

There is a new bird in my garden. In the “environs” of my garden, I should say.

And it is just about the most prolific songster I have ever heard! It’s been around for two or three weeks now.

I have in this blog in the past done quite a bit of speculating as to the song habits and activities of my resident Cardinals. Now, along comes this new avis, apparently to test, or is it to expand, my birdsong ideas.

First, I became aware of the ongoing recital –prolonged, animated, and everchanging. I haven’t been able to identify a “loop” in its recital.

We have in the “environs” –i.e. in a neighbor’s back yard– a most magnificent Norwegian Spruce of –actually, I just stepped outside to eyeball said tree and make a reasonable estimate of its height: I would say its about 60 to 70 feet tall, and heavily coned. An embarrassment of cones, one might say.

When I finally located the source of the birdsong, it was on the very topmost top of the tree. And in mid, full-throated, performance.
As I swung the binoculars on him –more on this apparent sexism later– he did something unusual: he took off in mid-song and flew a little pirouette, a loop, one might say, just a few feet from its perch, and quickly returned to it.
In its few moments of flight I was able to see two large light-colored circular markings on its wings. Its overall coloring –in contrast to its brilliant song– was a rather muted darkish grey with some white markings.

The most remarkable thing about this bird –no doubt about it– was its song.
You must remember that I grew up not in New York but in Ireland, and that there are many “natural habitat” things that a native New Yorker would know, as a matter of course, that I myself have only found out about somewhat later in life.

After a few sightings –I should really say “auditions”– I told some friends at Bruno’s about the new bird, as yet unidentified by me. Hanna, who has done some serious birding in her day –including hanging out with the Big Birders in Central Park– said that, from my description of the extravagant song, that it had to be a Mockingbird, and she was convinced of this from my physical description of it.

And when I checked in my National Geographic Birds of North America guidebook, it was indeed described as the premier songbird of North America. I was delighted to see this, and felt very privileged indeed to have one in what has been almost constant attendance ever since.

I confess to being somewhat troubled by the name, which has that unavoidable negative “mocking” attached. It certainly is not a “neutral” name. The Latin name, Mimus Polyglottos, suggests an explanation –“mime” and “many languages”, but not that negative attitude, unless one considers “miming” as an intrusive, invasion-of-privacy activity, which of course it very well could be. Though not necessarily.

I found the song-series had a certain pattern to it –usually 4 repeats of one sequence, in rapid succession, followed by a silence, which was then followed by a substantially different sequence, in a different “voice”. That is, the first voice might be a whistle, and the next one a chirp, or a tweet. It was, it seemed, ever varying.

The performance could last 20 minutes to half an hour, it seemed, after which the bird left for parts unknown. Another part of the forest, so to speak. But it returned to its spot topmost of the Norwegian Spruce several times in the course of the day.
And –as I described above– it did its little flying-pirouet a few times in each performance, singing all the while. To me, its a manoeuvre that says “I love my job. Isn’t life wonderful. It’s great to be a Mocking bird” –or a combination of all three.
(I got the same feeling yesterday from a couple of dogs on Broadway, just below 8th Street. They seemed so much happier, with so much of that “up for anything” enthusiasm to them, than any off-the-cuff sample of humans in the immediate vicinity.)

Back to the M’bird. I was surprised, for such a virtuoso musical performance from such an obvious master, that I was able to mimic Mimus Polyglottos, “word for word”, giving a passable imitation not just of the notes, but of the changing voices also.
My antiphonal “singing along” had no observable effect on the star performer –I did wonder if it didn’t just skip a beat at the outset out of its surprise at finding a partner for a duet.
And later, when I had reflected on the Territorial Imperatives that seemed to be being exercised (–it did not seem to have too much of a Mating component to it), I found myself wondering if my responses to him did not seem like I was contesting its territorial claim, I began to wonder if it was not cutting short on the concert, and leaving for another spot.

I don’t know.

I’ve been reading up a bit about Mockingbirds, with considerable fascination. And admiration. YouTube is a fairly rich source of short “anecdotal” type videos, from hither and yon, and I’ve been delighted to see them.
This is a bird –no doubt about it– with a great deal of personality. One could say “individuality”. And a large range of activity.

Here are some of the things I found:

The mockingbird often sings right through the night –especially the unmated males. (That’s not too surprising.)

Full moon also seems to bring on a mb song.

On the question of repertoires: I mentioned that I had not detected a “loop”, but experts say that they have found individuals with anywhere between 50 to 200 songs. Astonishing!

Males and females both sing, but the females were –apparently– noticeably quieter than the males.

They are reputed to be very courageous, and will defend their nest and their young against hawks and falcons.

Thomas Jefferson was known to have a pet mockingbird –I seem to remember reading that it perched on his shoulder. I will check that.

The guidebook indicated that it had a preference for “high perches” and prominent positions from which to sing. That I certainly found to be the case: if I tasked you to sit in my chair and pick out the most prominent perch within a 360 degree radius of sight, I will wager that you will pick…The Top of the Norwegian Spruce!!!

There is an extraordinary Youtube video of a mockingbird doing a continuous divebombing of a cat. The cat had a wonderful “will you look at this guy” expression on its face.
There is another video of a mockingbird doing a prolonged MEOW cat imitation, with a cat suffering along.
You can tell that the cat is thinking “Intellectual Property Rights”, but I would think that would be a hard case to win in most courts today.

I will be very interested to hear any Mockingbird stories. In the meantime I hover between fascination and that feeling of being blessed.

More later.


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