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Paul Mack: Hear that mockingbird sing


Paul Mack



It's spring -- plants and animals going nuts. Songbirds' hormones increase with day length, and most of the noise you hear is coming from males intent on finding a mate. In these parts a lot of that singing is from that storied species, the mockingbird. There's one singing in my front yard right now -- despite today's 20-degree temperature dip.  


Mockingbirds are nothing if not persistent, non-stop singers that drive many humans who live nearby to desperation. Worse still, mockingbirds are infamous for their serenades between midnight and dawn.  


It may be in these modern times with air-conditioning and windows painted shut, fewer humans note or dread the coming of this spring "racket," but I easily found two websites devoted to complaints about them. One contained an entry by someone who "permanently dispatched" a local male while the neighbors clapped enthusiastically. (See for yourself: Type into your search engine, "I hate Mockingbirds.") 


What does all this noise have to do with a male getting a mate? The contest is not just to get a mate but to find a quality mate -- maybe even two mates. As I often emphasize to students in my classes, life is a race, conscious or not, to reproduce as much as possible during one's lifetime. This applies to humans, birds, and every living thing. Those who send the greatest number of their genes into the next generation "win" the game of influencing the next generation most. 


While this sort of thinking doesn't completely explain why mockingbirds are so noisy compared to other bird species, it gets us started.  


First, mockingbirds are so named for imitating the songs of other bird species, often with surprising accuracy. I recently listened to a bird imitate six other species in about 30 seconds.  


While ornithologists have yet to identify the value of mimicry, one of several hypotheses is that males who sing more complex songs are signaling their superior mental capabilities to females (Mockingbirds are one of the smartest bird species, shown to be capable of recognizing human faces.). 


Nor are ornithologists sure why mockingbirds sing at night; it could be night-singing species are highly sensitive to light, responding right at dawn and on moonlit nights. And if just a little light is enough to set them off, then why not streetlights in neighborhoods where modern day mockingbirds are now much more common than in their former wooded and prairie habitats? 


If you think about it, this is just a variation on the old saying, "the early bird gets the worm"; here the early male is first to attract a newly arrived female. 


Whatever the explanation for the mockingbird's singing behavior, 'our' Northern mockingbird, Mimus polyglottus, has evolved an ecological strategy that must be highly successful since it is shared by a lot of other closely related species. 


Overall, there are 34 species of mockingbirds, thrashers (a cousin of the mockingbird), and their relatives, all that mimic other bird songs. I can't help mentioning that this group of 34 includes the gray catbird, familiar to some locally, and popularized by Columbus native and famed former Brooklyn Dodgers announcer, Red Barber, who used the phrase "the catbird seat" to refer to a batter in a particularly favorable hitting count such as three balls, no strikes. 


You might assume I side with "To Kill a Mockingbird" author Harper Lee, who famously wrote: "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." 


I can sleep through pretty much anything -- just ask my wife -- which might explain at least some of my bias. But you really ought to cut these guys a break rather than aim a shoe or pellet gun their way. They are just doing what has worked with female mockingbirds for at least 2.5 million years, the age of the oldest known mockingbird fossils. By the way, there is also some evidence to suggest that male mockingbirds who sing at night and who sing the loudest are ones that have not yet found a mate. Want him to shut up? Don't shoot him, find him a date. Problem solved -- for both of you.



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