Minnesota Outdoors: The northern mockingbird is the best mimic

Blane Klemek

While we get to enjoy members of the avian family Mimidae here in Minnesota, such as the gray catbird and brown thrasher, the champion mimic of the family, the northern mockingbird, doesn’t include Minnesota as its breeding range (although Iowa and southern Wisconsin hosts this special bird).

    As the family name suggests, mockingbirds and others of the family are mimics.  However, no other mimid takes mimicry to the heights and complexity as does the northern mockingbird. It is written that mockingbirds can imitate the songs of around 40 different species of birds, in addition to some 50 different call-notes.  And according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a single male can learn up to 200 songs in its lifetime.

David Allen Sibley describes the amazing repertoire of the northern mockingbird as a “song of varied phrases in regimented series: each phrase repeated two to six times, then an obvious pause followed by a different series . . .”  He continues by stating that most of the bird’s phrases are musical, with many imitations of other birds.

    To be sure, the northern mockingbird is an adept mimic and a delight to many human observers.  So beloved is the bird that five states—Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Texas, and Tennessee—adopted it as each of their official state bird.  Only two other birds outnumber the mockingbird in emblematic popularity—the northern cardinal was selected by seven states, and the western meadowlark by six.

    Evidently the mockingbird is capable of much more than avian imitation.  From one Internet account of this exclusive mockingbird attribute, a writer described other interesting sounds that mockingbirds have been known to impersonate such as cackling chickens, barking dogs, squeaky hinges, and even a piano.

Thought by many people to be the most widely known songbird in North America, the northern mockingbird’s fame is inextricably tied to the bird’s notorious vocal cords.  So enthusiastic and tireless a singer, the mockingbird memorizes and practices its songs by day, and often perfects them at night.

Apparently, at least to some people, the mockingbird’s incessantly repetitive songs, though certainly varied, have evoked strong resentments by those people wishing to catch a few winks each night.  As one red-eyed soul was counseled by a Ms. Diane Porter from the website “birdwatching.com” on how to deal with nighttime mockingbird songsters, she replied:

“If I succeeded in persuading my e-mail correspondent to give up fighting against its love song [the whip-poor-will], he may have a similar experience with the mockingbird. The man is interested in birds, so maybe he will detect a cardinal's greeting embedded in the bird's melodies. Or the warble of a house wren, like the ones nesting in his birdhouse. Perhaps he'll recognize in this pouring music some notes from the longing of his own heart, and his irritation will begin to melt. It is one's irritation that keeps a person awake, not the bird.”

Ms. Porter concluded, “I hope the person who e-mailed me about the mockingbird will try my suggestion. If he does, I think the bird's song will become dear to him. And if someday he moves out of the mockingbird's range, he will miss it. I know I do.”

My own experiences with the northern mockingbird’s relatives the gray catbird and brown thrasher draws parallels to the e-mailer that Ms. Porter described, although I could never go as far as to say that these birds’ beautiful medleys are nuisances. No in fact, I’d love it if catbirds and thrashers sang all night long every night.

For the fun of it, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, or any other website where birdsongs and calls are posted, and search northern mockingbird and listen to the many different song and calls of this amazing species. You’ll easily recognize many of the mockingbird’s subjects, mostly birds, but other sounds, too. Mockingbirds mimic frogs, toads, and insects calls as well.

Perhaps someday northern mockingbirds will find parts of Minnesota to their liking. With our growing season getting longer, these summer vagrants might one day become more common here. Until then, however, we’ll have to make do with the mockingbird’s cousin catbirds and thrashers as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane likes to hear your feedback and stories from Minnesota's outdoors. Reach him at bklemek@yahoo.com.