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Clay Coppedge
Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

The Original
Texas Songster

by Clay Coppedge
The mockingbird, the state bird of Texas since 1927, is an avian chatterbox, serenading Texans all over the state at all hours of the day and sometimes night, mostly from early spring through summer. The mockingbird's scientific name is Mimus polyglottos, or "many-tongued mimic." The Cherokees called it Cencontlatolly, which translates to "four hundred tongues."
TX Mockingbird on Old Spanish Trail sign
TE Photo, 2002
Though it has long preferred southern climes (it's also the state bird of Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee) the mockingbird has extended its range in recent years to as far north as New England to the east and northern California to the west. They perform their daily and sometimes nightly concerts in a tree, on a telephone pole or television antenna, singing for hours on end with scarcely a pause, raising and lowering their wings and fluttering up a few feet in the air and settling back down, crooning all the while.

As suggested by its name, the prevailing notion is that the mockingbird's exhaustive repertoire is a product of mimicry, not originality. Their alleged replications include not only other bird songs but also car alarms, whistles, sirens, bells, flutes, trumpets, crickets, squirrels and just about everything else that makes a noise. They're nature's ultimate cover band, prolific but derivative.

Or are they? Texas naturalist Roy Bedichek expressed an unabashed and lifelong fondness for mockingbirds, but he balked at the notion of the mockingbird as a mocker.

"If one wants to call a single note, or a phrase uttered here and there entirely out of context, the imitation of a song - that is if he doesn't care how loosely he uses the word 'imitation' - he may say the mocker imitates," he wrote in Adventures with a Texas Naturalist. "But when I hear it said that he can fool anybody, I dissent. I have never been fooled more than momentarily by the so-called mimicry of the mockingbird."

Well, maybe he was. At least a little bit. We rate Bedichek's statement as "partly true" because the mockingbird mocks, just not all the time. Contemporary researchers tell us that 10 to 50 percent of the mockingbird's repertoires is actual mimicry. The rest is original material, qualifying our state bird as a prolific songwriter as well as an inexhaustible performer.

As to why they sing so many songs, Ornithologist Kim Derrickson, who has actually analyzed sonograms of mockingbird songs, told National Wildlife Federation magazine that their daily (and sometimes nightly) concerts coincide with hormonal changes they need for mating and nesting in the spring and summer.

"If you followed a bird for an entire mating season, you would end up with more than 400 song types," he said. "There is no point at which their repertoire flattens out. They just keep adding. Some they will forget or not use. Others they will remember into the next breeding season."

Derrickson once recorded a mockingbird that mastered not only the call of a male red-winged blackbird, but also the paired response of a female red-wing, inspiring the mockingbird to actually perform a duet with itself.

Another long-time mockingbird observer and author of a book about mockingbirds, University of Texas professor Robin Doughty, notes that the mimicry of other birds increases in the northern portion of their range.

"How many other calls they copy depends on the individual bird and where it lives," Doughty says. "I'm sure that some don't regularly mimic at all whereas others do." He believes that notes from other birds or things might be incorporated into the mockingbird's song and used from time to time. "I have mistaken a call or song phrase of another species until by listening carefully I realized it is a mocker going through a series of sounds."

The male mockingbird's exhaustive play list tells female mockingbirds they've been around enough to learn all these songs, and if the female sticks with him she and the babies will be fine. It's also a warning to other male mockingbirds that the territory is occupied and intruders best move along.

Anyone who's come too close to a mockingbird's nest and been dive-bombed or pecked on the noggin by the original angry birds knows that mockingbirds back up their song with action. Cats and dogs are the universal target of preemptive strikes from distrustful mockers, but they take on all comers, including much larger birds of prey like caracaras.

While Bedichek might have been either half right or half wrong in his opinion that the mockingbird doesn't actually mock anything, he was spot-on when he said that mockingbirds "have qualities we admire and talk about."

The Texas legislators who voted to adopt the mockingbird as the state bird in 1927 felt the same way, proclaiming it the most appropriate state bird "as it 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 ..."
Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" November 2, 2018 column
Published in Texas Co-op Power

Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • The Little Axe That Could 10-19-18
  • The Cowboy Who Became the Father of British Aviation 10-4-18
  • Wrong Way Corrigan 9-26-18
  • The First Rodeo 9-2-18
  • Randolph Marcy Got Around 8-17-18

    See more »

  • Related Topics:
    Birds in Texas
    Columns
    Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • The Little Axe That Could 10-19-18
  • The Cowboy Who Became the Father of British Aviation 10-4-18
  • Wrong Way Corrigan 9-26-18
  • The First Rodeo 9-2-18
  • Randolph Marcy Got Around 8-17-18

    See more »


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