Northern Mockingbird

Although we don’t see them often near our feeders, Northern Mockingbirds are not strangers in our yard. They love shrubs and mowed grass.

Northern Mockingbird

The Northern Mockingbird is the only mockingbird commonly found in North America. It’s mainly a permanent resident in the southern states, but northern breeding birds may migrate south during harsh weather.

We don’t often write about the scientific Latin name of birds in our blog, but we’re making an exception with the northern mockingbird: Mimus polyglottos, which translates to “many-tongued mimic.”

You’ll better understand the name someday when you hear a dozen or more birds singing in your yard and look out only to see a single, medium-sized bird with a brownish grey upper body with a lighter underbelly. Its wings will be marked with white patches on the upper and lower surfaces (which you’ll see clearly when the northern mockingbird takes flight).

Although the northern mockingbird sings virtually nonstop—even sometimes at night—it doesn’t have a song of its own; it mimics the songs of other species. Northern mockingbirds learn and add new sounds to their playlists throughout their lifetime. A male can learn as many as two hundred bird songs as it matures. In addition, northern mockingbirds have even been known to mimic dog barks, musical instruments, and even sirens.

Northern mockingbirds have been recognized for their beautiful songs for more than two and a half centuries. In fact, from the late 1700’s to the early 1900’s, people took mockingbird nestlings out of nests (or trapped adults) and sold them in big northern cities like New York and Philadelphia to put them in cages in homes. In 1828, a prized melodious mockingbird could sell for as much as $50.00. To put that into perspective, mockingbirds were selling for more than four times the price of a cow, $12,.00. (Adjusted for inflation, the buying power of $50.00 in 1828 is equal to $1,344.99 today!)

Northern mockingbirds were a threatened species, especially in the northern part of its range until the caged bird trade was stopped in the 1930’s. The most recent Partners in Flight estimates of the global northern mockingbird breeding population is thirty-two million—with 83% in the U.S., 16% in Mexico, and 6% in Canada.

The northern mockingbird is the state bird of Florida (yay!), Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas, making it the third most popular state bird behind the northern cardinal and the western meadowlark.

Appearance

It’s probably not kind to say, but the beautiful singing of the northern mockingbird is offset by its rather bland appearance.

As we mentioned earlier, it has a brownish grey upper body with a lighter underbelly. Its wings are marked with white patches (called wingbars) on the upper and lower surfaces.

Feeding

Northern mockingbirds are omnivores, eating mainly beetles, earthworms, moths, butterflies, ants, bees, wasps, grasshoppers in spring and summer. Their fall and winter diet include a wide variety of berries (including even some from ornamental bushes), as well as some wild fruits.

Nesting

Northern mockingbirds typically build their nests in shrubs and trees from three to ten feet off the ground. The nests are an open cup shape formed from dead twigs and lined with grasses, small roots, leaves, and, sometimes, trash like bits of plastic or shredded cigarette filters.

The male begins building several nests before the female chooses one to finish building and lay her eggs. Females may finish and lay eggs in a second nest while the male is caring for the fledglings in the first.

Both parents feed the nestlings, which leave the nest about twelve days after hatching, although they can’t fly well for about another week.

A breeding pair may stay in a monogamous mating relationship over many breeding seasons. Mockingbirds are bold in defense of their nests, attacking cats and even humans that venture too close.

Other Interesting Tidbits

Versions of the song, Mockingbird, have been recorded by more than a dozen artists, including Martha and the Vandellas (1963), Aretha Franklin (1965), Peter, Paul & Mary (1969), Carly Simon and James Taylor (1974), Toby Keith and Krystal Keith (2004). and Eminem (also in 2004).

Everybody have you heard?
He’s gonna buy me a mockingbird
And if that mockingbird won’t sing
He’s gonna buy me a diamond ring

Opening verse of “Mockingbird” written by Carly Simon and first recorded on her Hotcakes album in 1974

There’s an obscure mention of mockingbirds in the 1960 American classic novel we had to read in high school, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

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 but make music for us to enjoy…but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

From Chapter Ten recounted by Scout (the story’s narrator and the daughter of the main character, Atticus Finch)

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