“Teach all the children to venerate it as a superior being
which will haunt them if any harm is done to itself or its eggs.” –Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson’s reverence and admiration for mockingbirds was shared by many others during the early 19th century, when keeping them as caged birds became popular. Pet mockingbirds were so valued for musical entertainment that an especially ardent male was worth up to $50. Thus, for mama to buy a mockingbird to sing her baby to sleep was once a valuable offer, on par with at least a small diamond ring! The mockingbird trade on the East Coast was robust enough in the early 1800’s to cause a severe local decline of the species. Fortunately the practice waned, and mockingbirds are now well established throughout North America and the Caribbean Islands.
Named for their impressive vocal repertoire, Mimus polyglottos, or the “many-tongued mimic,” is capable of learning over 200 different songs throughout its lifetime. Songs imitate not only other birds, but may also include sounds of sirens, trains, cats and frogs. Jefferson, who was a polyglot (he was able to speak five languages fluently) and a musician himself, reputedly had a favorite pet mockingbird named Dick that he doted on.
The mockingbird has had a recent revival in popularity as the female half of the sci-fi icon, the mockingjay. A symbol of hope, justice and rebellion in the Hunger Games trilogy, the mockingjay is a cross between genetically engineered “jabberjays” and wild mockingbirds. Jabberjays hark back to the subversive 1950’s CIA scheme to influence the national media, known as Operation Mockingbird. At that time, a network of influential journalists was hired to assist with a vigorous anti-communist agenda. When mated with the mockingbird, a symbol of innocence and beauty, the hybrid offspring became allies in communication for the trilogy’s protagonists through their ability to repeat human songs.
But the symbol of the mockingbird in literature is best known from the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Harper Lee, in which Miss Maudie explains to the children: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but . . . sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
Bachelor males are especially well known for their habit of crooning through moonlit nights, and are often fooled by city lights into singing constantly throughout the summer if they are not successful in finding a mate. Once the birds pair up though, things quiet down during nesting season, when the monogamous birds get busy building a nest and later caring for their young. Male birds are devoted dads, taking over care and feeding of the first brood while the female incubates a second.
In the Phoenix Region, you are more likely to hear a mockingbird in the suburbs than in the wild desert. Like many other creatures, mockingbirds are well adapted to human altered environments, which often provide more abundant food and water, especially in desert regions. They are omnivores, feasting on berries and fruit, as well as insects and lizards. Light posts are favorite perches, and sometimes used as nesting sites.
Local mockingbirds will imitate other avians common in the desert suburbs, like the cactus wren, grackles, finches, verdin and quail. Their song might be confused with that of their cousin, the curve-billed thrasher, who can also carry a decent tune, but not nearly as varied. The flash of white outer tail feathers and white wing patches can help to easily identify the otherwise drab gray mockingbird when it flies.
Photos by Richard Halliburton