Listen to the Mockingbird…All Night By Steve Roark TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

Two incidents happened to me recently that both involved a mockingbird, so I took it as a sign that I should to write about them. Recently I was in bed with the TV on, and it was like 11 at night.   A mockingbird in a tree outside the window began singing loud enough to be heard through the wall and over the television, and he kept it up for quite some time.  So why was a daytime active bird working a second shift? The other incident involved a mocking bird mocking me.  When I call our dogs, I always whistle a three-note “tune” if you will.  While in the garden the other day I heard someone whistling my whistle…perfectly…it sounded like a recording of me.  I walked around the yard a little spooked, and finally figured out it was a mockingbird adding my call to his song repertoire.  This begs another question: why do mockingbirds mock?

First here’s a review of bird behavior.  Birds mostly sing for two reasons: to impress and attract a mate, or to announce their territory and warn competing birds to keep out.  A bird’s vocal organ is called a syrinx and is located where the trachea splits off to each lung.  This allows different areas of the syrinx to vibrate separately and allows some birds to produce more than one sound at the same time.  A song is a consistently repeated series of notes that form a pattern. A call is a short sound with no pattern, such as a simple chirp.


Most bird singing is done by the male, which brings us to why mockingbirds sing well into the night.  It’s mostly unmated males that do it, so it’s possibly done out of desperation, or perhaps to demonstrate to a listening female that this dude has stamina and would be a desirable mate. Unmated males sing more than mated ones day or night, so it’s the things you do for love I guess. It has to be exhausting.


The mockingbird’s claim to fame is their ability to mimic other bird calls, and can ramble off long strings of borrowed songs and may even throw in a squirrel squawk or two.   But living among humans, they are known to mimic doorbells, sirens, cell phones, a rusty gate, you name it. Mockingbirds are in the “mimic thrush” family, which also includes other mimicking species such as catbirds and brown thrashers. You can tell a mocking bird from a thrasher by listening to the number of repetitions of each song fragment.  Mocking birds repeat themselves 3 or 4 times in a row, while a thrasher does only one or two repetitions.


A male mockingbird may learn 200 songs in its lifetime.  So this brings up the second question of why do they mock so many songs and sounds?  Males that know a large variety of sounds and can put them together to form a complex song demonstrates to the female that this dude is experienced in the ways of the world and would probably make a good mate.  It’s comparable to a turkey fanning his tail and strutting about showing off how big and bad he is; only the mockingbird does it with singing.


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