Thursday, March 15, 2018

Wildlife Profiles: Western Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos

Awful bird
At least one Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos ("MIM-us polly-GLOTT-os") is a resident of Pennsylvania Street Garden, and each year a nest is build and a lot of song and dance goes into it. I actually quite like this bird, despite my tongue in cheek description below.

Official description:

  • Family: The Wrens, Thrashers, etc .
  • Length: 9.00" - 11.00"
  • Adults: Upper parts, plain gray; wings and tail, blackish; wings with white patch at base of primaries; wing bars, white tipped; wing quills and tertials with whitish edgings; under parts, white tinged with grayish  - more brownish in autumn.
  • Young:  Upper parts more brownish black,  indistinctly streaked, or spotted with darker breast, spotted with dusky.
  • Geographical Distribution: United States from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific coast and in Lower California.
  • Breeding Season: April, May, and June
  • Nest: Of small twigs and weeds lined with finer material, and sometimes horsehair and cotton; placed from 6 inches to 50 feet high in thick bushes, hedges, vines, and trees. We've had them nest in our Cordylines.
  • Eggs: 4 or 5 pale bluish or greenish, spotted with reddish brown.

Preparing to yell
This species was first described by Linnaeus in his Systema Naturæ in 1758 as Turdus polyglottos. It's thought that the genus "Turdus" is a reference to how annoying mockingbirds can be, especially when they sing loudly at night... sometimes they get up at 3am and just yell in your window. Nobody knows why. Harper Lee wrote a great book about what to do when this happens, although actual references to deceased mockingbirds and how to get them that way were pretty thin on the ground in To Kill a Mockingbird. Let's just say the central themes of the book, involving racial injustice and the destruction of innocence, were metaphorical.

The northern mockingbird is known for its mimicking ability, as reflected by the meaning of its scientific name Mimus (mimic)  polyglottos (many-tongued.) It will copy the songs of other birds, even if they are not-great songs. It will copy dogs barking, car alarms, babies crying, ambulance sirens and the agonized wails of people trying to sleep.

The northern mockingbird is the only mockingbird commonly found in North America, thank goodness. This bird is mainly a permanent resident, but northern birds may move south during bad weather. It breeds in southeastern Canada, the United States, northern Mexico, the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands and the Greater Antilles. So, you can see that the range of people united by lack of sleep is huge. It's even the state bird of five states, appearing in book titles and songs.

Not flashy
The northern mockingbird is not a flashy bird: it has gray to brown upper feathers and a paler belly. Its tail and wings have white patches you can see when it flies. It eats both insects and fruits, and generally hangs around wooded areas and/or bedroom windows.

A 2009 study showed that mockingbirds are really smart - able to recognize individual humans, especially anyone who threatened them.  Which is just as well...

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