Be Your Own Birder

Bird of the Week: Northern Mockingbird

It’s hard to believe that one year ago today, I crossed the border into my new home state. In those 365 days, I’ve come to have a great appreciation for my new state bird and its bold personality, never-give-up attitude and energetic behavior – admirable traits we can all wish to share.

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird – Photo by Nick Saunders

Name: Northern Mockingbird
Scientific Name: Mimus polyglottos
Scientific Family: Mimidae (Mockingbirds and Thrashers)

Habitat: Adaptable to many open habitats, including woodland edges, sparse forests, parks, gardens and urban and suburban areas. Equally at home foraging in mature trees and shrubs as well as on the ground, and therefore most comfortable in a mixed region that offers a good variety of vegetation. Absent from very dense forests, barren deserts and extreme elevations.

Range: Widespread throughout North America from the southern edge of Canada into central Mexico and throughout the Caribbean. Does not generally migrate and will be found within that range year-round depending on food availability, though these birds switch from a summer insect diet to a winter diet of fruits and berries as needed.

At first glance, the rather bland gray plumage of a northern mockingbird is unremarkable, though the two white wing bars and white wing patch are good field marks. Males and females look alike, and both may show a subtle, dark, blurred eye line through the lores, as well as a thin white eye ring. The wings and long tail are darker blackish-gray, the underparts are slightly paler than the upperparts and the legs and feet are black. The eyes, if you get a good close view, are dark amber or yellowish.

The longer you watch a northern mockingbird, however – a second, third or fourth glance – the more striking these birds become. They are bold and energetic, strutting and hopping around as they forage or just to show off their prowess. When agitated or feeling particularly aggressive, they will raise their wings in a superhero maneuver, flashing the bright white patches – a trick that may scare up insects for easier foraging or just intimidate less confident birds. Similarly, they may flare their tails dramatically, showing off their white outer tail feathers. After seeing these behaviors, you’ll start to wonder how you ever thought these birds could be bland.

But perhaps you’ve never seen those dramatic poses. You look at this gray bird and wonder, what’s so special about it? But instead of looking, close your eyes – and listen. The northern mockingbird is an exceptional mimic and will have the songs and calls of dozens of other birds, as well as its own unique tunes, in its musical repertoire. These birds are so vocally accomplished, in fact, that more than one birder – myself included – has been at least temporarily fooled when a mockingbird sings, believing that a different bird is nearby. The key is to listen carefully, as northern mockingbirds typically repeat each musical phrase 2-4 times before switching to a different tune. If you hear a bird with that type of vocal ADD, you’ve likely heard a northern mockingbird in the midst of a concert. Those concerts may happen at any time of day and often into the night, from early spring through late fall. To ensure the best audience, northern mockingbirds often sing from high, exposed perches such as the tops of trees, peaks of roofs or tops of utility poles.

I’m thrilled to have my home represented by such a fun bird, and while it may not be the very best bird to represent Florida (more on that later!), it is a fun bird to see poking through my yard, chasing after blue jays and laying claim to everything within reach. After all, it’s their home too.

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