Mockingbirds-Painting by Je’ 11 X 14, gouache
We often take small wonders for granted, just because they are so small and common. One small, common wonder around here is the mockingbird.
I was sitting on a bench at sunrise recently, when a mockingbird landed nearby and began his routine, issuing perfect bird calls of every bird sound he had ever heard. I counted twenty-five, including non-bird sounds: a cicada, a cricket and a tree frog. I once heard the plaintive mews of a tiny kitten in distress and after frantically searched the shrubs around my porch I discovered the sound was coming from a mockingbird perched on a nearby chain link fence.
As it turns out ‘mimus polyglottos’ (literally, the mimic with many languages,) can do two hundred different sounds, which is pretty impressive. A polyglot is someone who can speak several languages. The birds have to learn the sounds while young, not unlike humans, who can learn languages easily up to about age six. Unfortunately, this window of opportunity is ignored in little humans who grow up to struggle with French and Spanish in high school.
Mockingbirds eat insects and raise lots of babies, up to seven nests full a year. They live everywhere in North America and like suburbs and cities just fine; no danger of taking away their habitat, they just share ours. They may have been in danger in the 19th century when they were caged as song birds, sometimes fetching as much as $1,300 in today’s money.
It is assumed that birds sing to warn others away from their territory and to attract the ladies. But female mockingbirds also sing and they certainly aren’t trying to warn insects away from their territory. Quite frankly, scientists do not know why they sing. But then, we don’t need to know everything to appreciate the small wonders that surround us.