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."
| 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
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
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
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.
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 ..."