THROUGH THE WOODS: Listen to the mockingbird

Northern mockingbird. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

ONE DAY YEARS AGO we were walking through the cemetery back of St. Peter’s Presbyterian Church in Spencertown next to the old firehouse. We heard a muted version of the fire whistle, looked around, and there atop a bush was a Northern mockingbird singing his heart out and mimicking the fire whistle. It was amazing, even though he couldn’t quite reach the correct decibel level.

Mockers get their name from this ability to learn and repeat sounds and the calls of other birds. They originated from our southern states and moved north, bringing with them a repertoire of southern bird calls like the yellow-breasted chat, Carolina wren, and others. Since we do not normally have chats and some of the other southern birds here, the young start learning these calls from their parents and keep passing them down to their young. I once worked with a doctor who loved to try and stump me with bird questions, and one day he asked me, “What is the mockingbird’s actual song?” I stood speechless and he smiled and went on. I later learned they do have a few calls of their own, a hew, a nest relief call, chats and a begging call. Of course, the dead giveaway is their singing of many other bird calls, one after another.

The mother of a friend in Missouri loved to hear the “mockers” sing and once sent me a tape of one in her yard, and it sang 53 different songs without stopping. Studies have shown that they usually have two sets of songs, one for the spring, and the other for the fall. They also keep learning and adding new ones all through their lives.

Mockingbirds can be found in many areas around Columbia County, and love dense thickets and bushes to hide their nests, and 10-15-foot-high tops to perch on. Cemeteries often have mockingbirds because the area is quiet and there are thick ornamental shrubs. The bird in the photo was taken at the Glen Eddy Retirement Community in Niskayuna, close to the front door. This bird was one of a pair that was very tame and often amused the residents who were outside looking for birds. Their nest was in a dense, 12-foot-high evergreen. We watched them dive in and out to check on things, and then one would sit above us and scold.

Another bird that mimics is the brown thrasher. It usually has a more limited repertoire and sings each phrase twice. It is distinctly larger and rusty brown in color compared to the mockingbird, which is mostly gray and white. Mockingbirds eat many insects, but they are also very fond of berries. They love the tangles of multi-flora roses, and in winter rely on the abundant red rose hips for food. These roses have contributed to the mockingbird’s expansion of territory. They are spunky birds with attitude, and it is a pleasure to hear them perform.

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