I was up early this morning and got to see the ibis doing their silent dawn takeoff from their rookery across the way. But just because they were silent doesn’t mean this morning was. No, the air was full of bird sounds, a cacophony of high and low notes, of trills and chirps, and all of it was coming from a handful of mockingbirds.
A friend recently told me she heard a cardinal in the yard and was looking around for it. But when she found it, it was a mockingbird. It had completely fooled her with a complicated cardinal song that was spot on and she is a serious birder.
Myself, I came out the other day to run to the store and hit my car’s alarm off button. It sounded the appropriate rapid dweep-dweep sound and that was followed immediately by a series of dweep-dweeps from the top of the telephone pole at the end of the driveway. Yep, a mockingbird.
I have heard them mimic almost anything. In town here, not far from US1 there are plenty of fire trucks and ambulances and our mockingbirds have taken note of that and frequently make siren sounds. Sometimes they give a little bark like the neighborhood dogs or start imitating the noisy parrots and that live around here.
Birdjam.com describes the song as a “long-continued stream of loud phrases, many being imitations of other birds’ songs and calls along with squeaky gates, machinery, barking dogs and humans whistling.” The males sing in the spring and more loudly than the females. Both sexes sing in the fall. Mockingbirds often sing at night.
All my life I have watched and listened to mockingbirds but never really gave them a lot of thought until this morning. Sure, they are the Florida state bird but so what? And sure there was an old song from my mother’s days but I can’t seem to find who did it though I can hear it in my mind.
Turns out that song was much older than I thought — it was written by Septimus Winner under the pseudonym of Alice Hawthorne in 1855. It was a sad song about a sweetheart who had died and the mockingbird that sang over her grave. Supposedly Abraham Lincoln liked the song (it was widely used as marching music during the Civil War) and he is quoted as saying, “It is as sincere as the laughter of a little girl at play.” Perhaps it reminded him of the laughter of his own lost-too-young sons, Eddie, Willie and Tad, forever sleeping in a valley somewhere with a mockingbird’s song for company.
The Three Stooges used it as a theme song for a while and it was recorded by a variety of swing and jazz groups and has more recently been revived as a traditional folk song.
Here’s a modern version of the original folk version of Listen to the Mockingbird by Tom Roush if you want to give a listen. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gvr3lbxi1a0
But I guess when I think of mockingbirds the first thing I think of is the line in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” saying it’s a sin to kill one. (In that strange way that the world brings disparate things together, I just read that 87 year-old Harper Lee just sued her agent on May 3, 2013 to regain her copyright that he allegedly wrongfully took from her.)
“Atticus said to Jem one day, ‘I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’ That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. ‘Your father’s right,’ she said. ‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’”
― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Seems like that’s the truth. I know that just after dawn today they were singing their hearts out and filling up the morning air with a wild bunch of sound that didn’t have one mean bone in it.