What is a Mockingbird?
Mockingbirds are members of the Mimidae family, a group of American passerines that also includes thrashers, tremblers, and New World catbirds. These stentorian songbirds, medium sized with angular proportions and long, twitchy tails, range from the Canadian border down through South America.
Northern Mockingbird by Mike, found fittingly at Hotel Mocking Bird Hill in Jamaica
The Northern Mockingbird, the most well known representative of this family above the equator, is known scientifically as Mimus polyglottos, which comes from the Greek “mimus” to mimic, and “ployglottos” for many-tongued. The song of the mockingbird is actually a medley of the calls of many other birds. Each imitation is repeated two or three times before another song is initiated. A given bird may have 30, 40 or even 200 songs in its repertoire, including other bird songs, insect and amphibian sounds, and even the occasional mechanical noise.
Northern Mockingbird by Corey
Part of the mockingbird’s advantage over other avians is physical; it uses more of the muscles in its vocal organ, the syrinx, than most other passerines do, many more than non-passerines like raptors or waterfowl. But the mockingbird also has a mind for music. It’s been theorized that this species has more brain matter devoted to song memory than most other birds do. Why does the mockingbird sing? The vocal mimicry trait seems to indicate that lyrical flow is an especially potent aphrodisiac in mockingbird circles, although some lonely males warble and whine the whole night through when unable to find a mate.
- “Northern” is a rather ambiguous descriptor for Mimus polyglottos, as it is the only mockingbird to appear regularly anywhere north of Mexico. The Northern Mockingbird, clad in shades of gray with conspicuous white wing patches, enjoys exceptional popularity for such a drab specimen, evident in the fact that it is the state bird of Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.
- Other Mimus species mockingbirds, 9 in all, closely resemble the Northern Mockingbird, which, in my experience, is more common in the Bahamas than the Bahama Mockingbird (M. gundlachii) and may even appear in the tropics alongside the Tropical Mockingbird (M. gilvus). No wonder it’s so popular!
- Birds of the genus Nesomimus are known as the Galapagos mockingbirds. These 4 species endemic to the celebrated archipelago, Galapagos (N. parvulus), Floreana (N. trifasciatus), Espanola (N. macdonaldi), and San Cristobal (N. melanotis), are said to have been extremely influential in shaping Darwin’s theories on the origins of life. Tragically, the critically endangered Floreana mockingbird is extinct on the island for which it is named.
- The only Mimodes mockingbird, the Socorro Mockingbird (M. graysoni), endemic to Socorro Island in the Revillagigedo Islands, is also endangered.
- Species in the genus Melanotis certainly live up to their billing as the blue mockingbirds. The Blue (M. caerulescens) and Blue-and-white (M. hypoleucus), found in Mexico and Central America, both appear exquisitely azure, a dramatic departure from the family’s typical ashen hues.
- It’s considered a sin to kill a mockingbird, or at least that’s what we’re told in the book of the same name. Why? As Harper Lee says, “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.”
Tropical Mockingbird (notice the absence of white in its wings)
If you’re interested in learning more about Northern Mockingbirds or have specific questions you seek answered, I strongly recommend reading the comments below. If you don’t have time to wade through over 450 comments though, visit my summary of the most frequent mockingbird questions and answers!
Learn about the mysterious Mockingbird Victory Dance…