The Many-Tongued Mimic

close-up of a mockingbird's head with an insect in its bill
northern mockingbird portrait by Veit (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Every winter we have at least one unusual bird visitor. The winter before last it was the northern shrike. Last winter, during the pandemic, most birders were excited about the superflight south of boreal birds and welcomed huge numbers of pine siskins, red-breasted nuthatches and common redpolls, as well as evening grosbeaks and even hoary redpolls at their feeders. We saw only an occasional pine siskin with a flock of American goldfinches.

Instead, we were surprised by the appearance of a northern mockingbird on November 10 during a long period of Indian summer weather.

While northern mockingbirds are common yard birds in much of Pennsylvania, we had, up until 2020, only five detections of these birds on our mountain, and they had been in the spring. But our son, Mark, who was living in our guesthouse with his wife Paola and his brother, Dave, at the time, described the November mocker as a skulker that would appear around six in the morning and move quickly from its shelter in the huge old barberry hedge that stretches several hundred feet from the guesthouse to the shed, up to a lilac shrub near our veranda and then on to large forsythia bushes near our garage.

Mark continued to see the mocker every morning, but I didn’t have my first sighting until a cold day late in November as I headed across First Field. In the middle of the field, perched in a large, native, black haw shrub with four American tree sparrows, was the northern mockingbird. I had a good, long look at her mostly gray body with whitish breast and belly, white wing bars, and, when she finally flew, a flash of black and white tail feathers.

mockingbird sitting on a branch with red berries
female northern mockingbird by Lucina M (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I decided she was a female because she never sang but merely “chipped” a few times at dawn. Female mockingbirds sing quietly only during nesting time, but males sing most of the year. Furthermore, according to K.C. Derrickson, who studied mockingbirds in southeastern Pennsylvania and Maryland, many females in Pennsylvania establish their own winter territories in November apart from their mates, based on the available fruit, cultivated or wild, in an area, especially multiflora rosehips. Although we had a few of the latter around the perimeter of First Field, we had a lot more barberry, mile-a-minute and even an old apple tree with apples still clinging to it.

My husband, Bruce, had the next sighting on a bitter cold afternoon in early December when she landed briefly on a hackberry tree outside the sunroom. Three days later, on December 10, I saw her again, this time alone, in the black haw shrub. She sat still as I crept closer and closer. Then she spread her black and white tail before flying across the field toward the barberry shrubs at the edge of Margaret’s Woods.

Northern mockingbirds prefer early successional habitat at low elevation (less than 1,300 feet), and Mark established that they had territories at the base of our mountain on the Sinking Valley side. This rural area with brushy pasture and agricultural fields bordered by dense shrubs along with the mowed lawns and shrubs of suburban homes is ideal mocker habitat, and we thought that “our” mocker had followed the powerline right-of-way that crosses the valley up to our property.

hunched-up mockingbird sitting on a bare branch
mockingbird wintering in southern Vermont by Putneypics (CC BY-NC 2.0)

She made her appearance again during our Christmas Bird Count on December 20, and Dave saw her on a tree branch near his front porch on December 27.

Dave has had a Twitter account and blog for over a decade that he calls The Morning Porch, where he recorded her sitting in a bush beside our stream and chasing off other birds that tried to drink there on January 5. Mockingbirds are known to be aggressive toward their own species and other bird species too throughout the year.

The following day Bruce saw her land on our large bird feeder hanging on our back porch, but mockers are not usually feeder birds unless there is fruit or suet in feeder areas, neither of which we had.

On January 8 I had my best and, as it turned out, my last view of her. I had followed a deer trail through the dried goldenrod of First Field to the back of the barberry hedge. I pished and out from its depths popped the mockingbird. She sat on a hedge branch for a minute or so and then flew to the old apple tree below the hedge, where she poked at a few wizened apples and ate a little before flying away.

a mockingbird eating a crabapple by Stan Lup (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Dave had three more reports on his Morning Porch. The first was on January 12 when a mixed flock of winter birds flitted through the yard and the mockingbird flew over the guesthouse and peacefully joined them at a half-frozen seep.

On January 22 he wrote, “Half an hour before sunrise, the first inquisitive ‘chirps,’ mockingbird,” and finally on January 27, “Is it night or day? The 7 o’clock factory whistle [in our town] has the answer. Two minutes later the mockingbird begins to chirp—that take-charge tone.”

We can only hope she returned to the valley because after that came days of snow and cold that blanketed our mountain with more than a foot of snow and ice that lasted throughout February.

singing mockingbird by Stan Lupo (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A member of the Mimidae family, the Latin name of the northern mockingbird is Mimus polyglottos roughly translated as “many-tongued mimic.” Mockingbirds, as a whole, don’t only mimic the sounds and calls of at least 200 songbirds but also a wide variety of natural and human-made sounds. For instance, one mockingbird at Boston’s Arnold Arboretum mimicked 39 birdsongs, 50 bird calls, and a frog and cricket, and the average number of song types of four males in southeastern Pennsylvania was 148 in 1980 and 167 in 1981.

Mockingbirds sing all day and sometimes all night especially if they are unmated males, beginning in February through most of November. Mockers also may have a different slate of songs for fall and spring and are known as open-ended learners, like parrots and European starlings, meaning that they continue to learn new songs throughout their lives. They sit and sing on top of shrubs, fences, trees, utility lines and poles and walk, hop, or run on the ground with their tails cocked up. The male’s singing is thought to be both a way to attract and stimulate his mate and to defend his territory from other male mockingbirds.

two brown-speckled blue eggs in a nest
eggs of a northern mockingbird in Texas by Rich Mooney (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Males will fight over territory boundaries by first flying toward each other, landing near the boundary and silently hopping from one side to another. When this approach doesn’t work, they may fly at each other and grab with their wings and claws and peck. While males keep off males, females keep away other females.

Northern mockingbirds are mostly monogamous and some pairs stay together for life. In Pennsylvania Derrickson followed one pair for six years. In addition to singing, a male mockingbird attracts a female by building the outer twig foundation of several nests in shrubs and trees three to 10 feet from the ground. She then chooses one of those nests and lines the cup-shaped nest with grasses, rootlets, leaves and even such trash as dental floss, laundry lint, bandages, duct tape, pieces of plastic and aluminum foil.

In southeastern Pennsylvania, a female mockingbird begins laying her three to four pale blue or greenish-white eggs spotted with red or brown in mid-April and incubates them for 12 to 14 days. The male perches on a high point nearby and guards her, the eggs, and later the nestlings from predators such as blue jays, fish and American crows, red-tailed hawks, snakes, squirrels, raccoons, opossums, cats and even humans by chasing them away from the nest. Sometimes as many as six mockingbird neighbors will join together to mob and chase away possible nest predators.

The nestlings are born naked, blind, and covered with light down. Both parents feed them 82% arthropods and 18% fruit. The nestlings fledge fully feathered at 12 days of age and can fly well when they are 20 days old. The parents feed them for three weeks more, but the male often takes complete charge if the female starts refurbishing another nest and laying eggs for a second brood.

four baby birds in a nest, two with mouths agape
mockingbird chicks in Florida by Jim Mullhaupt (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Immatures never breed on their natal territory and can disperse up to 200 miles which may be how what used to be mainly a bird of the southern United States in the early nineteenth century has become a bird that nests as far north as southern Canada.

In Pennsylvania mockingbirds have been moving northward since the 1950s, although avoiding densely forested areas across the northern tier. They are still most common in southeastern Pennsylvania but are also plentiful in the Ridge-and-Valley Province and in southwestern Pennsylvania including the Pittsburgh Low Plateau. Altogether, the state has an estimated 200,000 singing males so we should have no trouble hearing even more of the mockingbirds in years to come.

a mockingbird in flight
an over-wintering mockingbird in Vermont takes flight by Putneypics (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Bird Brains

Don’t call anyone a bird brain unless you are complimenting them. In the last couple decades, researchers worldwide have been discovering how amazing bird brains are. That should not be a surprise since feathered winged animals that fly have been evolving on earth for more than 150 million years, according to recent genetic analyses.

Neuroscientists Suzana Herculano-Houzel and Pavel Nemec recently published a paper entitled “Birds have Primate-like Numbers of Neurons in the Forebrain,” in which they write that the brains of birds are organized much like those of primates.

“We found that birds, especially songbirds and parrots, have surprisingly large neurons in their pallium: the part of the brain that corresponds to [our] cerebral cortex, which supports higher cognition functions such as planning for the future or finding patterns.”

To truly understand how intelligent birds are, researchers study how a species behaves in the wild, conduct experiments with captive birds, and compare what they see in the field with what they learn in the lab about a species’ genes and cells.

Some bird species seem to learn as little as possible to get along. Others are bird Einsteins. Most are in between. But relatively few of the more than 9000 species of birds worldwide have been studied in detail. And in much of the last century, even though people had been reporting anecdotally what appeared to be the intelligent actions of some birds such as crows and ravens, scientists had not begun any systematic studies of birds’ brains.

An American crow on a fence post

An American crow on a fence post (Photo by Joe McKenna on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

While some of us have watched parrots dance to music and New Caledonian crows solve problems on You Tube, many of our common birds are just as clever. American crows, for example, are adept at problem-solving. One researcher observed an American crow carrying water in a Frisbee to dampen its dried mash and another one using the end of a plastic slinky toy to scratch its head while it was perching.

According to research by John Marzluff in Washington State, American crows can recognize human faces, using the same parts of their brains to do this as we do. They plan ahead when they find and then leave a gift for a human who has been feeding them. In addition, they will delay gratification if they think they will be offered something better (usually food) at a later time.

Common ravens are socially adept, remembering other ravens they were friendly with before they paired for life, recalling those special friends even after they have been separated for three years.

A blue jay with an acorn

A blue jay with an acorn (Photo by Jeff Hart on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Still another member of the Corvid family, our blue jays, can accurately select fertile acorns 88% of the time and can count to five. They also mimic red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks. Blue jays often mimic the latter on our mountain and fool us. Some scientists hypothesize that they do this to trick other blue jays into thinking that there’s a raptor in the area and they need to leave, giving the blue jay imitating the red-tail time to harvest acorns without competition.

Another scientist noticed that a blue jay was smart enough to rub red ants on its body to get rid of the ants’ formic acid before eating them.

Because more than 80% of bird species are socially monogamous, staying with one partner for a season or even, in some cases, for life, they have developed “relationship intelligence,” which is an ability to understand what their partners want or need and respond in order to successfully breed and raise their young.

But apparently 90% of both sexes also sneak off to copulate with others without getting caught by their partners. This results in more healthy offspring.

In autumn, birds that store food for the winter, such as black-capped chickadees, grow new cells in their brain center (the hippocampus) which deals with spatial memory. This allows them to remember where they hid seeds months later.

A brown-headed cowbird female in Codorus State Park

A brown-headed cowbird female in Codorus State Park, near Hanover, Pennsylvania (Photo by Henry T. McLin on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Brood parasites such as brown-headed cowbirds, especially the females, have large hippocampuses, because they are the ones that must lay their eggs in other species’ nests. They must find, remember, and revisit the nests they parasitize.

And invasive bird species, such as house sparrows and European starlings, have larger brains, are innovative, and have more flexible behavior because they must adapt to a foreign environment.

But our brainiest birds may be hummingbirds, because their brain is the largest brain relative to its size, a whopping 4.2% of their total body weight. Their hippocampus is five times larger than that of songbirds, seabirds and woodpeckers. They can remember every flower in their territory and how long it takes them to refill with nectar after they feed from them.

A ruby-throated hummingbird at a feeder

A ruby-throated hummingbird at a feeder (Photo by likeaduck on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

From year to year at home and in migration they also remember where every feeder is. They even learn which feeder people are responsible or irresponsible and have huge episodic memories that allow them to plan when and where to feed on hundreds of flowers a day.

The females watch older females making nests to learn how to do this because female hummers are on their own once they have bred. They must build their nests, brood their eggs, and feed their young alone.

Hummingbirds have the ability to move backwards, forwards, and sideways because they have more complex brains. In the part of their brain that responds to visual stimuli, instead of the usual back-to-front preference most animals and humans have, hummingbirds have no preference and can move in any direction.

A ruby-throated hummingbird at a flower

A ruby-throated hummingbird at a flower (Photo by chrisdupe on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

During their mating flights, which we’ve watched with awe from our front porch, they make instantaneous course corrections much faster than a fighter jet. Thus, their brains can move efficiently in three dimensions, which some scientists believe makes their tiny brains the most complicated of any vertebrate species.

Hummingbirds have not been considered songbirds, but biologists Claudio Mello and Erich Jarvis have found that hummingbirds have the same areas in their brains that control song learning and production as songbirds and parrots. They do sing in a higher pitch than songbirds, but their songs are amazingly rich, and in some species, complex.

Neurobiologists have been comparing birdsong with human speech and language. Like human children, young birds listen to other birds of their species to learn songs. They imitate and practice, seemingly using the same brain structures and genes to learn songs as children use to learn language. Some birds even stutter.

There is incredible variety in birdsong, as various as the 4,000 songbirds on our planet. And if you listen as carefully as Donald Kroodsma, who has been studying birdsong, especially in the eastern United States, for more than 40 years, you might be able to hear the 30 to 40 songs of a Carolina wren, the 50 to 100 of an eastern bluebird, the song and mimicking calls of a white-eyed vireo, the 30 to 40 songs of the ethereal wood thrush, the 200 to 400 different mimicking songs and calls of a gray catbird, the 100 songs of a northern mockingbird, and the 2,000 of the mimic champion—the brown thrasher.

Then there is the hermit thrush whose song has been compared to human musical scales with trills and slides reminiscent of a woodwind instrument. Some ornithologists have claimed that hermit thrushes sing major, minor and pentatonic (five note) scales.

But composer Emily Doolittle and biologist Tecumseh Fitch didn’t believe it. Still, using recordings of 14 hermit thrushes from the Borror Laboratory at Ohio State University, they started analyzing the pitches of 114 song types. When they slowed them down, they could hear their harmonies.

A hermit thrush singing

A hermit thrush singing (Photo by Yankech gary on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

“They jumped out at us,” Doolittle said, adding that 70% of the hermit thrushes’ songs were harmonic.

And maybe most miraculous of all to us are our songbirds that migrate. Scientists have found that at first they rely on genetic information for both direction and distance until they gain experience. Then they use their own brain maps to find their way. They build up magnetic maps during migration and some may use odor to help guide them. Some researchers even think they may hear a landscape infrasonically, especially the ocean, to help navigate. But to do all that and more they must possess fantastic spatial memories.

Every day, it seems, more is being revealed about the brains of birds. It’s a hot topic. For instance, researchers have recently found that the bird that is closest to its dinosaur ancestors is our own wild turkey. That’s because, since the days of feathered dinosaurs, the wild turkey’s chromosomes have had fewer changes than those of other birds. And, as any hunter knows, wild turkeys are wily and smart.