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Garden Visitor: The Northern Mockingbird

By Gwen Bruno (gwen21December 9, 2013
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That the northern mockingbird is the state bird of Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas attests to its popularity. Although its coloring is fairly nondescript, the boisterous song of this avian entertainer is anything but ordinary.

Gardening picture

Unlike other birds who warble the same predictable few songs or calls over and over, the mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) is a talented mimic. He is able to exactly reproduce the songs of other species around him, switching from one distinct tune to another with great ease. Mockingbirds have even been reported to imitate bells, sirens, whistles or household machinery.

Simply called the “mock bird” by the early settlers, this friendly, plain gray bird has long been appreciated for its ability to sing. Eighteenth century naturalist Mark Catesby noted that “the Indians, by way of eminence or admiration, call it “Cencontlatolly” or “four hundred tongues.”

Appearance
Male and female mockingbirds are identical in appearance, having gray with lighter underparts, except for their flashy white wing patches and outer tail feathers. At 9 to 11 inches long, they are about the size of a robin.

ImageRange
Although northern mockingbirds were mainly considered a Southern bird in the past, they have expanded their range to include most of U.S. Not shy of humans, mockingbirds happily settle in farmyards, parks and gardens. Their favorite nesting spots are locations protected by shrubbery or vines, with multiflora rose being a favorite.

BehaviorImage
Although they generally stay in the same geographical location throughout the year, mockingbirds establish two territories -- a breeding spot for spring and summer, and a separate fall and winter feeding territory. Very protective of their space, mockingbirds will fight other birds from a feeder if it happens to lie within an established feeding territory. If they feel their nest is threatened, mockingbird parents will swoop down in warning, on animals and humans alike. If another bird is interloping on its territory, the mockingbird may perform a confrontational “dance” in which it spreads its wings, then raises and lowers them so that its white wing patches are on display.

Diet
in spring and summer, mockingbirds eat mainly insects such as grasshoppers and beetles. When available, fruit becomes highly sought after and makes up nearly half of the mockingbird’s diet. Mockingbirds are particularly attracted to fruits like elderberry, holly, mulberry, pokeberry and bayberry. Those in desert regions enjoy fruit of the prickly pear.

Mating and Nesting
In spring, the male sings loudly from high perches in an effort to announce his territory and attract a mate. One they’ve mated, the Imagepair build a nest in the fork of a tree or shrub about three to ten feet off the ground Cup-shaped, coarse, bulky and loosely woven, the nest is constructed of twigs and lined with grass and rootlets. Mockingbirds lay three to five brown-speckled blue or green eggs. The young birds, which are more brown than gray, are vulnerable to a variety of predators and have a high mortality rate. For this reason, mockingbird pairs produce two and sometimes three broods per year.

Song
As this enthusiastic singer mimics other birds, he repeats a phrase three to six times before switching to another song. In addition to copying other bird songs, mockingbirds may imitate other animal noises. Unlike most birds, who stop singing when the sun goes down, mockingbirds can often be heard singing at night under a full moon or under a street light.

The one time they do stop singing is when they nest and raise chicks during the summer. Once fall arrives, however, both males and females begin their song again, announcing their presence over a territory of one to two acres.

Attracting to Your Property
You can attract mockingbirds by creating the dense shrubby habitats they require for nesting. By planting fruit-bearing trees like sumac, hackberry, dogwood and serviceberry, and vining or bramble fruits like grapes and berries, you provide mockingbirds cover and safe nesting spots as well as food. Bird baths, or fountains with running or dripping water, also invite their company.


More Information:
Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds -- Northern Mockingbird

National Wildlife Federation: Northern Mockingbird

Photo Credits:
Thumbnail photo by Heather Paul
Mockingbird eating berries by Carol Foil
Mockingbird in territorial display by Kelly Colgan Azar
Mockingbird fledgling by Mike



  About Gwen Bruno  
Gwen BrunoAfter spending 28 years as a teacher and librarian, Gwen Bruno is now a full-time freelance writer residing in suburban Chicago. As a preschooler, she lovingly tended a small patch of weeds in her backyard. Luckily, her parents supported her budding horticultural endeavors, and she's been gardening ever since.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
Callicarpa, Beautyberry & Mockingbirds wakingdream 1 3 Dec 26, 2013 11:07 AM
My Mockers jazzy1okc 4 15 Dec 10, 2013 6:10 AM
Mockingbirds fotofashion 1 3 Dec 9, 2013 9:21 PM
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