Jun 25, 2015 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, June 2015

Only True Love Stills the Mockingbird

Unmated young male mockingbirds are known to sing at night during the spring and summer, possibly trying to impress female mockingbirds.
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I haven't kept any statistics, but undoubtedly one of the three most common phone calls I get is an impassioned plea for help: "How can I make that dradblatted mockingbird shut up? Please, it’s driving me crazy. I’m not getting any sleep! Help!"

The problem, as many of you know, is that mockingbirds are loud, persistent singers and they have a habit of singing all night long. With a suspicious genius they usually choose the corner of the house right over the master bedroom. Even if you close the window the sound penetrates. It would be OK if the song were melodious. Sounds of birds and nature, when sufficiently soft and rhythmic, can be sleep inducers. But the mockingbird’s song is neither soft nor melodious. The mocker is a mimic extraordinaire, incorporating not only the songs of other birds, but also the sounds of the neighborhood. I once shared property with one that did a truly remarkable imitation of my neighbor’s power mower. The sounds of the ocean may lull you to sleep, but having the sound of a lawn mower ripping through the bedroom can cause you to levitate right out of bed. They have also been recorded imitating cars, doorbells, cats, dogs, tin whistles, almost every bird they hear, and a host of other sounds.

The Mockingbird's Song

Several studies have shown that an individual mockingbird may have as many as 300 or more different songs, and no matter how long you listen, you rarely hear a mockingbird repeat itself for more than a few notes. Why they imitate so many sounds has been debated among scientists for centuries. Many believe that the size of a male mockingbird's repertoire is a boast to listening females. Another widely held view is that by imitating other birds, mockingbirds may reduce competition. Imitating a jay may keep that species from trying to intrude on the singer's territory.

Although the imitation may not persuade most birds, every potential competitor deterred is a plus. There are also studies that show that the older a bird becomes the more varied its song becomes, which makes sense. The longer the bird lives the more sounds it hears and the greater the opportunity for imitation, although in the case of mockers, it is less a sincere form of flattery and more an admonition to stay away.

Northern mockingbirds nest from southern Oregon to Nova Scotia.

Territory and Mockingbird Behavior

Territory is crucial to mockingbirds, even more so than to many other species. Almost all birds defend territories during the breeding season, but a mockingbird also defends a winter territory and does with energy and aggressiveness. The reason is that mockingbirds are generally nonmigratory, surviving the cold winter months not by eating seeds but by feasting on fruit, especially berries. The winter territory contains enough trees and shrubs with fruits to get the bird through the colder months , and it is defended against any other bird that might try to steal a few morsels. Mockingbirds will be especially aggressive when birds like robins, jays, and waxwings try to elbow their way to the table, and they can be positively antisocial when dealing with starlings.

Another aspect of mockingbird behavior that has attracted a lot of debate is the wing-flashing action. The bird usually shows this behavior when standing on the ground, head upright. The wings are open—sometimes held and sometimes closed quickly. This emphasizes the white patches on the wings, and scientists have struggled to learn what the behavior means. The early view was that it was related to territory defense or to courtship, and there were observations that supported this view. Later study showed that wing-flashing is commonly used when the bird is foraging, and it is assumed that it startles insects, making them easier to find and catch. Another study showed that it was used when mobbing potential predators such as owls and snakes. The general conclusion is that wing-flashing is a behavior adapted to a variety of circumstances.

Mockingbirds are among the species that tend to stay mated for long periods. Once the male attracts a female, the pair may stay together for years, although at least one study showed that if nesting was unsuccessful, the female tended to go looking for a better prospect. Mockingbirds have benefitted mightily from the suburbanization of the East. A hundred years ago they were much rarer in the northern parts of their range, but the planting of ornamental shrubs and trees, many of which have berries, has permitted the mocker to move north. One of the key plantings aiding and abetting the spread has been multiflora rose, now considered a noxious week. Mockingbirds love it, though, and there is hardly a patch of multiflora anywhere in the range of this bird that does not have its pair of residents.

Especially in winter, berries are a favorite food source of northern mockingbirds.

Favorite Foods

The mockingbird's enthusiasm for fruit can be seen in how it feeds its young. For about the first two weeks after hatching the young are fed insects, especially spiders, the favorite food of mockers. After that, however, fruits become a much greater part of the diet, making up as much as 40 percent by the time the young leave the nest. Most seed-eating birds feed their young insects almost exclusively and the change in diet does not occur until well into fall.

What To Do With an Enthusiastic Singer?

So how do you discourage the mockingbird that is keeping you up all night? The species is protected and cannot be shot or stoned. A roaming cat won’t do you any good because mockingbirds are famous for attacking and harassing cats. You could, in an extreme case, remove all berry-bearing plants from your yard, but that is a lot farther than most of us want to go.

The best solution is to get the singer a female. Studies have shown that it is unmated males that sing most persistently and except in strongly lighted areas, the only ones to sing through the night. The poor thing is only looking for love. Of course, it isn't easy to find a female mockingbird, so we are left with little opinion but to lie in the dark and try to sympathize, all the while hoping that his efforts will be rewarded.

Or you could do what I did, which is move into the back bedroom. The nighttime singing usually lasts only a couple of weeks.

About Eirik A.T. Blom

Eirik Blom was a contributing editor for Bird Watcher's Digest from 1998 to 2002.

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