Mockingbirds: worth leaving home for
A mockingbird’s song is one of the great rewards of travel. At least it is for me; we don’t have mockingbirds here where I live.
Last time I heard a mockingbird, I was in Texas for a board meeting. I remember feeling disappointed because they booked us into a hotel in an awful wasteland of strip malls and parking lots outside of Dallas. (The state of Texas, in other regions, is a birding paradise.)
As I wandered between the cars to find a Starbucks, I heard the most sublime singing. It bubbled and burbled; it waxed and waned in intensity; it was gentle and brash by turns. I walked toward the music and found a lonely shrub among the parking stalls. In it was a Northern mockingbird, belting out a song. I stood and watched it as if it was a busker; honestly I wanted to clap at the end.
When I was working as a cruise ship naturalist, it was the tropical mockingbird that we used to see. Some of these photos date from that era of my life, when Tom and I would escape the ship first thing in the morning to walk in the hot sun all day photographing birds.
Bird song is amazing to begin with, and mockingbirds are even more remarkable than the average avian singer. For starters, all birds have a different vocal setup than you or I.
If you put your hand on your Adam’s apple, you’re feeling the outside of your larynx. That’s where your vocal cords live; you make sounds by moving air between two vocal cords (or folds) that vibrate inside that larynx or ‘voice box’ as we used to call it.
A different kind of instrument
Birds have an altogether different apparatus. They’ve got an organ called a syrinx, way down in their chests. If you put your hand just above your sternum, in that area that really hurts if you ever get bronchitis, that’s where their syrinx is—right where the airway splits before going into each lung. They have stereo sound-producing organs down there—one on each branch—and it opens up a lot of possibilities. They can make two sounds at once; they can breathe on one side and sing on the other. They can, to some extent, harmonize with themselves.
Mockingbirds benefit from this cool anatomy, but like all great musicians, the real genius takes place in the brain, not the instrument. Mockingbirds are mimics: they can reproduce other birds’ sounds with remarkable accuracy. Nobody’s quite sure why they do this, but like so many aspects of bird behaviour, it’s probably to impress a potential mate. (The other theory is that by imitating another species, they can trick that species into staying away, thus freeing up more territory. But experiments show that it doesn’t really work that way; the other species is able to figure out that it’s an imposter.)
Mockingbirds are composers
So like any musician that can play by ear, mockingbirds learn their songs by rote, picking up musical phrases from the creatures around them. They learn other mockingbirds’ sounds; they learn jay calls, catbird calls, you name it. But here’s where it gets interesting: they don’t just repeat the calls verbatim; they improvise on them. Mockingbird song is long and complex, and as they sing, they repeat phrases, then slowly change or morph them, suddenly singing the phrase in double time or half time; changing the pitch, changing the rhythm. It’s a lot like jazz: they’re taking a basic theme and then improvising on it, playing with it, elaborating on it, over time.
The result is beautiful. Mockingbirds sing and sing and sing; so much so that people used to keep them in cages like canaries. In fact, in the 19th century they were in danger of extinction in the eastern US from being over-captured for that purpose.
This recording starts with grating squeaks and ends with magnificent song. This bird must have been exhausted by the end—you’ll want to pull up a chair because this one is 17 minutes long.
I am fascinated by mockingbirds. I studied music for four years in university, and I got to work with some truly accomplished musicians. I was, and still am, most in awe of those who can not only play by ear, but who can compose formally complex, beautiful, original music on the fly. Mockingbirds have that genius. I can’t wait for my next concert.
Let me brighten your Friday.
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