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Master Mimics

From whining dogs to car alarms, almost any sound can be material for a mockingbird’s personalized play list.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

One morning a few years ago, Roy Reinarz Jr. was replenishing the seed in his backyard bird feeders when he heard the distinctive chime of a cell phone.

“I don’t have a cell phone so I looked around, and no one was there,” recalls the Lago Vista resident. “About that time, another cell phone went off. I couldn’t see two people with two cell phones. I looked up and saw a mockingbird fly up, then back down on a telephone pole. I laughed when I realized it was him.”

“Then he imitated a pager beep.”

On yet another occasion at Reinarz’s home, his wife, Susan, was the one left scratching her head.

“We have a border collie-mix dog who’s an Academy award-winning actress when she’s offended,” Reinarz says. “One day, Susan had enough of Lucy being in the house so she put her on the back porch. Lucy whined and whined so piteously that finally Susan, who’s a real softie, couldn’t take it anymore so she went to let Lucy back inside. But Lucy was asleep on top of her dog house. Susan looked around, and there was a mockingbird, sitting on a telephone line.”

Guilty as charged. That’s a neighborhood mockingbird for you. If something can make a noise or sound a call, chances are a mockingbird somewhere has mimicked its own version. From whining dogs and blaring car alarms to croaking frogs and chirping crickets, not to mention the songs of other birds, they’re all potential material for a mockingbird’s personalized play list.

Most definitely gifted as a mimic, mockingbirds can also be downright obnoxious and mean. How many nights of fitful sleep have you lost due to the relentless songs of a nocturnal mocker outside your window? And woe be to the wayward cat who unknowingly happens to stroll or snooze beneath the nest of a mother mockingbird turned kamikaze pilot.

Speaking of dive bombing, mockers can be territorial to the extreme. Just ask Linda Crum, who lives in The Woodlands.

“I became less fond of mockingbirds when one decided that the meal worms I put out for the bluebirds were all his,” she says. “Even though I put out enough for him and the bluebirds in several locations, he chased the bluebirds so much that they left my yard and have not been back since. One of the bluebirds — a male — had been with me for four years.”

At times despised, more often esteemed, the Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), our state bird, and approximately 14 other mockingbird species belong to the Mimidae family of “mimic-thrushes,” a group that also includes thrushes and catbirds. Mimus is Latin for “mimic” and comes from the Greek word mimos (“imitator”) while polyglottos means “many-tongued mimic.”

No doubt the species is aptly named: a male’s repertoire of different calls can exceed 150. A few documented cases have reported as many as 200 and 203 song types. It’s those varied and exuberant songs, not a male’s plumage, that attract lady mockers, but more on that later.

Drably colored and found in both rural and urban habitats, mockingbirds rarely trigger a second glance when sighted. Indistinguishable genderwise (though males are usually a tad larger), both sexes are similar in size to American Robins, only slimmer and longer tailed. Their crowns, napes and upperparts are gray while underparts are grayish white; eyes are pale amber, their slightly curved bills are black. In flight, two white patches on their black wings flash conspicuously.

Equipped with relatively long legs, mockingbirds walk, run, hop and pivot easily along the ground and through dense brush in search of insects, arthropods, fruits and berries. Occasionally when walking or running, they haltingly raise and close their wings — as the late bird artist George M. Sutton observed — “archangel-fashion.” Ornithologists theorize that mockers “wing flash” to startle insects and predators, and possibly impress their mates.

Apparently, though, a male’s singing ability matters more. The breeding season begins in mid-February when male mockers stake their territory and begin to chirp with gusto. “Soon he becomes a song zealot, flinging himself into the air, gliding along the boundaries of his chosen area in full voice, laying claim to the land,” observes author Robin Doughty in The Mockingbird. “His aim is to attract a mate while warning off competing males.”

Researchers have concluded that males with larger song lists are among the first to mate and begin nesting. Singing during the mating season starts well before dawn, slacks off during the day, and resumes at sunset. Females sing, too, but not as often and with less intensity. Only unmated males serenade at night (so have a little sympathy next time one wakes you at 4 a.m.).

Generally monogamous, a pair typically mates for life and can produce up to four broods a season. Males do most of the nest building, and eggs are laid as early as March. Females incubate three to six eggs, which hatch 11 to 14 days later. Both parents feed the young for approximately 12 days in the nest, then several days more after they fledge. Only males, after completing a new nest for the next brood, continue to feed the fledglings for up to three weeks. However, both defend their young from predators, such as snakes and other birds. Nearby mockers, upon hearing their neighbors’ angry squawks, may join the attack and dive at intruders, too.

Such bold and daring brashness coupled with a mockingbird’s superb ability to sing has won it countless fans for centuries.

From the late 1700s to the early 1900s, mockingbirds sold in high numbers as caged songbirds. In fact, their popularity in the market nearly led to their demise in Philadelphia and St. Louis. The practice of keeping them caged subsided as more and more people agreed that native birds were best left in their native habitat. Legislation ultimately made it illegal to keep wild birds as pets.

In January 1927, the northern mockingbird earned a special place in Texas’ legacy and lore when it was named our state bird. Nominated by the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs and unanimously approved by the state legislature, the resolution signed by lawmakers proclaimed that the mockingbird “is found in all parts of the state, in winter and in summer, in the city and in the country, on the prairie and in the woods and hills, and is a singer of distinctive type, a fighter for the protection of his home, falling, if need be, in its defense, like any true Texan...”

Likewise, Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi later adopted the mockingbird as their own state bird.

Both song and story have immortalized the mighty little mocker over the years. Listen to the Mockingbird, a folk song penned in 1855 by Septimus Winner, remains popular to this day, and Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, will forever speak against racial prejudice and injustice. Within the pages of the classic Leaves of Grass, poet Walt Whitman admires the mocker’s optimistic nature in Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.

For years, Texas naturalist Roy Bedichek hesitated about publishing an amusing account told to him of a mocker that once teased a flock of chickens for pure fun. He just couldn’t believe that the species might have a sense of humor. Then Bedichek witnessed a similar performance: a mischievous mockingbird on a ranch near Austin swooped down on a flock of feeding chickens, scattering the squawking birds in all directions. The poor chickens reassembled only to be dive bombed again — and again, and yet again — six times in all, to be precise.

The mockingbird, Bedichek conceded in his Adventures with a Texas Naturalist, “exhibits a sense of play if not of humor.”

Roy Reinarz Jr. has known that about mockingbirds for a long time.

“They’re very amusing,” he agrees. “Mockingbirds imitate all the stuff in our neighborhood, including the back-up alarm on a garbage truck.”

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