One of my favorite things to see in our yard are birds. I haven’t studied them enough to have more than a rudimentary understanding of the different species, but I can recognize several of them by either sight or by their calls.
My first memory of paying attention to birds singing was from a bob-white that was apparently nesting in a fence row across the road from our house. Early in the evening, when the sun would dip lower on the horizon and we would sit on the porch after supper, we could hear her call. I never saw her, but she made her presence known. My mama told me the bob-white’s whistle sounded like her name. Bob — white, bob-bob — white! I haven’t heard one in a very long time, and I miss it.
Although we live in town, we are blessed with a plethora of birds in our yard and neighborhood. We see or hear robins, cardinals, house wrens, and blue jays every day. We have woodpeckers and finches and black birds, and have had two different encounters with hawks. I even made Frank come outside one night when I got home late from the theater to confirm that what I was hearing was an owl.
A favorite of mine will always be the mockingbird, though. I’m not alone in my admiration. The mockingbird has been immortalized in song, in prose, and in poetry. The mockingbird is the state bird of Tennessee — and of four other states in the southern U.S. But why are we enamored with them?
An obvious reason is their ability to mock other birds and even sounds. Brief internet research tells me that their scientific name is mimus polygottus, meaning “many-tongued mimic.” The mockingbird can produce over 200 different sounds, adding to their repertoire as they learn. This makes its birdsong more interesting to our ears, because it can change. (I wish that were true for blue jays.)
Harper Lee wrote in “To Kill a Mockingbird” that “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs. They don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Anyone who has lived near a male mockingbird who, still longing for a mate, sings late into the night may disagree, but it’s still a wonderful sentiment.
Their variable song isn’t the only reason for my admiration, though. Anyone who has paid attention to them knows that mockingbirds are a bit territorial, and they aren’t afraid to defend their turf or their family. They will chase away larger birds, like hawks, annoying them until they move to another area. I’ve seen many of them swoop toward a cat or dog that came a little too close to the tree containing their nest.
The mockingbird will even defend its territory from humans — flying at them, exposing the wide white swaths of feathers on their wings and screeching their alarms calls. Science has even proven that mockingbirds can recognize humans that have previously threatened them and are quicker to go on the defense if those humans approach again, ignoring other humans who had not. (Some of us could take a lesson from that.)
Maybe I admire these birds because they speak to the Scots-Irish in me. They are happy to be left alone to work hard and provide for their families. They are quick to defend what is theirs. They can be a little cocky, just watch those tail feathers when they hop about in the yard. And I do like their music.
To borrow from and shamelessly rewrite a song, I say to all the mockingbirds out there, “Mock on!”