The Compleat Naturalist
By Laura & Hal Mahan
“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs; they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
~Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
The other day some folks from northern Minnesota were visiting our business in Biltmore Village and asked if we could identify a bird that they had seen. They described it as about the size of a robin, mostly gray with a white breast and white stripes along the sides of its rather long tail. The other distinctive feature was that it never stopped singing, even through the night. A dead giveaway! If you have lived any length of time in the South, you know immediately that they were describing the mockingbird, whose official common name is now, oddly enough, Northern Mockingbird. Our visitors from Minnesota were absolutely fascinated by this bird. They asked if we had a book about it and thought it had the most beautiful bird song that they had ever heard.
This gave us pause, as it is fairly easy to become, well, not annoyed but at least a little bit peeved with this bird that can make a fair bit of noise while most of us are trying to sleep! It made us think about the fact that, too often, we ignore these common birds and animals that we observe on a daily basis, when they actually can be quite interesting if one explores their natural history.
Mockingbirds belong to the family of birds known as “mimic thrushes,” which also includes the Brown Thrasher and Gray Catbird, and as the name implies, the group is particularly known for its vocalizations, often mimicking the sounds of other birds, insects, frogs and toads, barking dogs or even machinery. Of the mockingbird clan, there are about 17 species, most of which reside in Mexico and farther south, which is why our mockingbird was dubbed “Northern.”
Another entertaining behavior of this backyard songster is its territorial behavior. Sometimes if males confront each other, they will face off and then grapple with wings and claws until one or the other backs down. They are also very aggressive when it comes to pet dogs or cats in their territory. We have a resident mockingbird behind our store that regularly dive bombs the rear end of our unwitting cocker spaniel.
You normally won’t see mockingbirds at your feeder as much during the summer since they feed mainly on a variety of insects. In the fall and winter they switch to eating mostly fruits and berries. Mockingbird nests (in a shrub, usually around 3-10 feet off the ground) consist of dead twigs shaped into an open cup, lined with grasses, rootlets, leaves and trash, sometimes including bits of plastic, aluminum foil and shredded cigarette filters.
When you get the chance take a moment and listen to the mockingbird!
Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit compleatnaturalist.com or call 828.274.5430.