The Daily Mockingbird

Summer is a special time of year to many people. People love the beach, having some time off, and spending time doing outdoor activities. There are certainly things that I appreciate about summer too, but it’s gone from being my favorite season as a kid to my least favorite. It’s my least favorite season to go birding because like many of us, birds would rather stay out of the heat as best they can and are less active during the day.

But there is something that’s really special to me about the summer since I’ve been into birding: the daily Mockingbird. It seems like once the end of May hits, I end up seeing Mockingbirds on a daily basis, usually multiple times throughout the day. Northern Mockingbirds happen to already be in my top 10 of favorite birds, but seeing the flash of their white wing patches in the middle of a summer’s day gives me a kind of joy I can’t describe. Here are some interesting facts about these vocal virtuosos.

  • Throughout the year Northern Mockingbirds, who can be found all across the United States, tend to be alone or in pairs. Whether they are alone or not, they are always conspicuous. Mockingbirds love being up high on trees, fences, or other platforms to proudly sing their songs, but you could also find them running around on the ground or grass.
  • The Northern Mockingbird’s scientific name, Mimus polyglottos, roughly translates to “mimics many harmonies”. If you’ve ever heard a bunch of different bird songs/calls in a row, but they are only coming from one bird, then you are listening to a Mockingbird performance. They are part of what is called the “Mimics” (which also includes Brown Thrashers and Gray Catbirds), meaning their songs are made up of songs fragments they learned from other species, as well as mockingbird-specific songs.
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Northern Mockingbird at Strawbridge Lake (Image by BirdNation)
  • The number of songs a Mockingbird can sing varies based on its range, but many male Mockingbirds can sing up to 200 songs! Females sing also, but not as loudly or as often. Males tend to have two sets of repertoire: songs for summer and songs for fall. The songs themselves are a mix of long musical phrases that are repeated usually 2-6 times before a new phrase starts. A Mockingbird song can range anywhere from 20 seconds to a few hours! Singing is used as a way to defend their territory as well as sexual selection for mating. New songs can be learned throughout life.
  • A frequent movement done by Northern Mockingbirds is what’s called the “wing flash display”. In the display, they will partially or fully open their wings showing their large white patches while taking jerky steps forward. Some scientist thing this display may help startle insects and make them easier to catch. The odd this is though that other mockingbirds throughout the world that don’t have wing patches use this movement too…so we’re still not quite certain what the purpose of this display is.
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    Mockingbird Wing Display (Image via wikipedia commons by By Manjithkaini (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia CommonsManjith Kainickara)

    Singing is a large part of a Mockingbird’s life, and they can sing both during the day and at night. Unmated males are probably the most insistent though; they make up most of the nocturnal singers. It’s more common for an unmated male to nocturnally sing during a full moon.

  • Northern Mockingbirds are popular in United States culture and are the state birds of 5 states: Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas (formerly in South Carolina).
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Mockingbird eating crumbs at Palmyra Cove parking lot (Image by David Horowitz)
  • Northern Mockingbirds don’t just imitate other birds. They can also imitate dogs, cats, frogs, and even artificial sounds like car alarms! They may tend to fool us humans into thinking there’s another bird around, but other birds are not normally fooled by the Mockingbird’s mimicking ways.

Over the years, I’ve found many different Mockingbird territories in parks I frequent as well as other places in my area. My favorite is the Mockingbird who lives towards the front section of Boundary Creek. Dave and I took a walk on Sunday at Boundary, and my Mockingbird friend was running around the lawn grabbing bugs. He frequently flicked his long tail and hopped around to expose the bugs, then quickly snatched them up. He was quite amusing to watch. I love going to Boundary and finding him either running around or upon his treetop sings his little heart out (his picture is below).

Do you have an Mockingbirds that live nearby? Tell me your mockingbird story in the comments.

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Boundary Creek Mockingbird (Image by BirdNation)

The Warbler Guide

Dave and I were getting ready to go on a birding trip. We were going to Hawk Mountain, so I wanted to bring our small Canon camera instead of the DSLR since it’s easier to carry around. Dave usually keeps the Canon in his sock drawer, in the left corner right on top. I opened up the drawer, but the camera wasn’t there. I started pushing socks around.

And then there it was. Nope, not the camera. The Warbler Guide. The book that Dave and I were looking at in Barnes and Nobles a few weeks earlier.

My first thought was Oops. I found my Christmas gift.”  I felt slightly panicked. Then my second thought was one of excitement: “He bought me The Warbler Guide!” . I realized I had to try and act cool to pretend that I didn’t find the book. So I quickly closed the drawer said “Hey Dave, I can’t find the camera, can you help me find it?” I started petting our cat Jenny who happened to be sitting nearby to try to take my mind off of what I found. It was hard to contain my excitement. I guess I did a pretty bad job of it because a few minutes later Dave asked, “Did you see something in my drawer?”

I admitted that yes, I did find the book. He told me that I could have it early since he planned on getting another thing for Christmas too. Dave and I can never actually wait until the holiday to give each other gifts anyway (we get too excited and can’t keep the secret) so we always give gifts early. I’ll consider it a Thanksgiving gift lol :-).

The Warbler Guide is amazing. Written by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, it won a National Outdoor Book Award in Nature Guidebooks in 2014. If you are serious about learning to identify North American warblers, then this is the book for you. This guide is extremely detailed. I am already in love with it.

warbler-guide

The first section of the book is called “What to Notice on a Warbler”. This section focuses color and contrast, behavior, the face, the body, and the undertail . There are many pictures to help explain the key identification points. One of my favorite parts of this section is “the face”, where the authors goes deeper into significant facial features such as eye rings, cheek patches, superciliums (a.k.a the “eyebrow”), and more.

Another section is titled “How to Listen to Warbler Songs”. This section explores the elements that create warbler songs. The authors use audio spectrograms (a.k.a sonograms) to show harmonics, song stucture, and phrases. This chapter explains in detail how to read the spectrograms, but later in the book you can explore the spectrograms of each individual species in this book.

The largest section of this guide is the individual species accounts. Instead of putting the warblers in taxonomic order like other field guides, the authors decided to put the birds in alphabetical order. They explained in the beginning of the book they did this because the taxonomy of warblers has significantly changed recently, and some of the warblers in question are still not settled. The authors also felt it would be easier to find the warbler you need if the birds were listed alphabetically.

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Example of a Species Account (Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, published by Princeton University Press)

Each species accounts are about 3-6 pages long with numerous pictures. Information provided includes physical descriptions, range maps, photos of distinct views/many additional photos, comparison species (with photos), aging and sexing, and spectograms (with comparison to other species). There are a few features in each account that you usually don’t see in other field guides such as undertail patterns, preferred habit in trees (high canopy, understory, ground, etc), a color diagram, and behavior icons. All this information is easy to read and well organized.

Other great features of this book include quizzes to test you id skills, habitat and behavior charts, a taxonomy chart, descriptions and diagrams of flight patterns, silhouettes broken down by region, and species accounts of similar non-warbler species.

My favorite feature is the “quick finder section”. The quick finder section are all illustrations. The “quick finders” include faces, side views, 45 degree views, under views, seasonal plumage views, types of undertails, and song finder charts.

The Warbler Guide has a wealth of information for serious birders. It’s well organized and has hundreds of great pictures to show key identification parts. There’s a website listed in the back of the book where you can access additional resources. You can also purchase for iTunes the audio tracks that are featured in the book, so you can study the spectograms while listening. I think it’s an essential book for anyone who wants to explore the wonderful world of North American Warblers. I can’t wait to devour the information in this book.

And who knows, this may be the perfect gift for the warbler lover in you life. Just make sure you hide it better than Dave did :-P.

 

The Master Mimic

One thing I like about being off for summer is that I don’t have much of a routine. After having a strict schedule of teaching and taking classes for a majority of the year, it’s a very welcome break. There is one routine that I tend to pick up while I’m home each summer that I really enjoy: the Daily Mockingbird.

Around this time of year I see at least 2 Northern Mockingbirds a day. It doesn’t matter what the weather is or where I’m going; there’s always a Mockingbird somewhere. It used to be a random thing, but now I’m starting to notice some regulars in the same spots around the same time of day. It always makes me smile, because I’m a fan of of the Mimidae family of birds, which the Northern Mockingbird is a member of. So today, I wanted to share some fun facts about this fascinating bird.

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Northern Mockingbird (Image via wikipedia.org)
  1. Northern Mockingbirds like to be the center of attention.

Mockingbirds are pretty conspicuous. They like to make their presence known by finding the highest perch around to sing their songs. Although they like to be the center of attention, they do not appreciate intruders in their territory. They are very aggressive and not afraid to attack other birds, dogs, cats, and even humans who venture to close. They prefer to spend their time in large open fields and lawns, where they hop, walk, and run around to find insects.

2. Although they look pretty plain, they have some pretty impressive wing patches.

Northern Mockingbirds are a pale gray overall with white underparts. They have something pretty cool under their wings though: large white wing patches. These patches make Northern Mockingbirds pretty easy to identify while in flight. They will use the “wing flash” display  frequently, where they will open their wings either fully or halfway. We are not sure why exactly they do this. A theory is that they use their white patches to startle insects to make them easier to catch. They may also prance towards an intruder slowly flashing their white patches.

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A Mockingbird uses the “wing flash” display (Image by Kelly Colgan Azar via ebirdr.com)

3. Northern Mockingbirds are masters at mimicking others and sing really impressive songs.

Mockingbirds are appropriately named. They are professionals at mimicking the sounds of other birds and frogs that live in the area. Their songs are made up of short phrases that may be repeated 2-6 times before they pause and start a new sound. Mockingbirds learn new songs throughout their lives and may learn up to 200 different songs. Both males and females sing. Males will sing from February to August, then again from September to November. They have different sets of songs for spring and autumn. Females usually sing in the autumn in a quieter voice. Their songs may get quite long and Mockingbirds will sing all throughout the the day into the evening.

4. They are not only good at singing animal sounds, though.

Although they mainly imitate other birds, Northern Mockingbirds also imitate unnatural sounds. Some examples include sirens, squeaky gates, and cameras. Another animal sound they are know for is imitating barking dogs.

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Singing away… (image by Lillian Stokes via stokesbirdingblog.blogspot.com)

5. Unmated males are particularly determined singers.

Not only will they sing during the day, but unmated males are known to be nocturnal singers. They will sing throughout the night to be more attractive to potential mates. They tend to sing nocturnally during the  full moon. Nocturnal singers can sing up to 1,000 songs per hour!

6. Northern Mockingbirds used to be pretty popular pets.

From the late 1700s to the early 1900s, people would cage Mockingbirds as pets. People were attracted to their beautiful songs. They were so popular that they almost disappeared in the wild in some parts of the East Coast. Some particularly impressive singers would sell for around $50! Thankfully, they are no longer pets and have become widespread again. In recent years they have expanded their range northward.

On the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, the first paragraph about Northern Mockingbirds states: “These slender-bodied gray birds apparently pour all their color into their personalities.” I couldn’t agree more. Northern Mockingbirds have really interesting personalities, and I think it’s safe to say they deserve the title of “Master Mimic.”

Do you have a Northern Mockingbird that lives nearby? Tell me about your Mockingbird experiences in the comment section.

 

The Magical Duet

“Cheer-cheer-cheer-cheer-cheer!”

“Birdie, birdie, birdie!”

Every morning I hear these songs in the trees outside my bedroom window. And yes, they are songs, not car alarms going off (although it does sound like that!). It’s a Northern Cardinal, singing its little heart out.

Now that spring is back, birds are arriving from their winter homes and getting ready to raise their families. The dawn chorus is assembling again. Dawn chorus is a term that many people use to describe when all the birds sing in the morning. When you hear a singing bird it usually is a male, but that’s not always the case. One of the exception to the  “only-males-sing” idea is the Northern Cardinal. Th female Northern Cardinal also sings.

Northern Cardinals are very vocal songbirds. You can hear cardinals sing all year round, not just during the spring. They have about sixteen different calls and ten different songs.(We will talk about the difference between songs and calls in another post, because that would take a whole post to explain.)

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(Image by Bonnie Taylor Barry via birdnote.org)

While singing a cardinal pair may perform a duet. The male will sing a short song (about 2 to 3 seconds long) and the female will answer back, but at a softer volume. They will go back and forth for a bit with their beautiful duet. The female’s reply, or lack thereof, will determine when a male will bring food to the nest. Sometimes as they are singing they will move closer together and eventually meet up.

I have a very fond memory of a Northern Cardinal duet from a few years ago. It’s from the time before Dave and I became birders. Dave and I have been together for almost eight years now, and although we’ve developed our passion for birding within the past few years, we have always enjoyed going to parks. While in college we would frequently walk in Alcyon Park, which was in a neighboring town. We were looking out over a meadow when we heard a beautiful song.

Cheer, cheer, cheer, cheer!” It was a stunning bright red male Northern Cardinal, singing from a nearby branch. In the distance we heard a faint ‘cheer-cheer-cheer-cheer!”

“Wow, someone is answering back!” We listening closely. The male, with his strong voice sang again. And there was the echo, still faint but seemingly a little closer.

This went on for a few minutes. We continued to listen intently to the lovely duet that was being performed right in front of us. The cardinals seem didn’t realize they had an audience. And after each partner made their reply the song seemed to move closer until suddenly there she was!

The female, with her gorgeous red and olive plumage! She landed right next to him on his perch. What a beautiful pair they made. Listening to this pair serenade each other was such a moving experience for me. I didn’t spend a ton of time in nature growing up, so I was really touched by the Northern Cardinal duet. Little did I know a few years later I would be having all sorts of wonderful bird experiences on a daily basis.

The Northern Cardinal duet at Alcyon Park was about six years ago, but it still feels so real and present as I reminisce on the experience. Those little cardinals captured my heart during that duet. Since that day every time I see a cardinal it is a magical moment for me.

Do you have a magical bird moment? I would love to hear your stories in the comments.