Saturday, February 6, 2010

Mockingbird Day

Early Februrary seems like the time to be looking for signs of spring. There's the blooming of the Candlemas snowdrops, the lactation of ewes on Imbolg, and the groundhog waking up from hibernation and seeing his shadow (or not).

The thing is, there aren't any snowdrops, or ewes, or groundhogs around here, so I found my very own sign of spring that does usually happen the first week of February in my own ecosystem. This is about the time when the mockingbirds start singing. They are here all year, and you can hear them doing a little bit of "practice" singing at other times of year, but spring is when they're really serious about it, because that's when they're setting up their nests.

Today while I was planting bluebonnets in the front flower bed, I heard what was unmistakably a male mockingbird earnestly singing his little heart out to win over a mate and to intimidate rivals. His song announced to the world that he had claimed this tree to nest in, and that any female mockingbird would do well to pick him as a mate, seeing as how he's such a good singer and all. I actually did a paper on mockingbird song when I was an undergraduate, and found studies in the scientific literature that suggested the more complicated a male's song is, the sexier he is to the females. Mockingbirds learn new songs throughout their lives, and apparently the girls like the more experienced guys.

Most songbirds are set in their songs to varying degrees. The Caronlina Wren is a good example of a one-hit-wonder bird. He always sings in bouncy triplets, "da-deedle-dee, deedle-dee, deedle-dee..." (most birders write it out as "teakettle, teakettle, teakettle"). About all an individual wren can do to change things up a bit is slow down or speed up that same song.

The Northern Cardinal, on the other hand, doesn't so much have one song as a genre of songs. Their voices are always rich and loud, with multiple songs in their playlist. There's the ever popular, "CHEER! CHEER! Woit, woit, woit, woit, woit..." and then there's "what-CHEER, what-CHEER, cheepcheepcheepcheep CHEEPCHEEPCHEEPCHEEP!" and then there's the more mellow, "pur-dy... purdy purdy purdy..." To identify a cardinal by song you can't just learn one song like with the wren, you have to learn that distinctive cardinal sound, that rich, bouncing whistle, speeding up, slowing down, getting louder, getting softer, with dramatic pauses put in from time to time before they switch to a different song.

The mockingbird is different than either of those extremes. There is no such thing as a mockingbird song. The mockingbird takes bits of other bird songs and strings them together, and dare I say, does it with style. If you've never heard a mockingbird, you might expect it to be a jumbled confusion of different sounds, but he somehow makes it work. He'll warm you up with a bit of wren, rising into the rich songs of the cardinal, then the excited cries of a killdeer before finishing it off with the mechanical sounds of a grackle. At least, that's what my mockingbird treated me to today. It's fun to try to pick out which songs he's doing, but it's often difficult because he'll take verses from the middle from other birds songs out of context, stick a verse from another bird's song on the end, and I'm just left thinking, "That sounded really familiar, but I just can't place it."

Later in the year the migrants will start showing up with their distinctive songs as well, but that won't be for a while. In the meantime it's the mockingbirds that will be the main performers out there as they claim their nesting spots. Try walking through any park, university campus, or similar environment on a sunny day some time this month and notice how you'll always have a singing mockingbird within earshot, and as you walk and that one fades into the distance, another one will be coming into hearing range. All of Texas is now being carved up into mockingbird territores!

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