Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/June 1896/Our Southern Mocker



THE American mocking bird (Mimus polyglottos), although native to a country which claims to be democratic in principle, is by nature pure and simple a born aristocrat. It is true that at first sight he may be a disappointment to any one anticipating a bird of brilliant color; but the more one studies the mocker the more strengthened becomes the opinion that few birds, if any, can aspire to his dainty, high-bred personality, or to his slender grace and elegance of movement. Indeed, to this unconscious, inborn "Delsartean" ease, poise, and lightness, as well as to his marvelous power of imitation, the mocker owes his attractiveness; for this sleek fellow in his sober coat of gray—tipped with black, and lightened only by a glimpse of white when he spreads his wings—can lay no claim to beauty of feather as an additional charm to win him admiration. The plumage allotted him by Nature serves merely as a background, so to speak, which shall not distract the eye while his listeners pause in wonder as he fills the clear air with his marvelous melody.

The bird lover at the North, who sees the mocker caged, gloomy and despondent or restlessly beating himself against the merciless bars of his prison, knows nothing of the real power of the bird until he hears him singing at full liberty in the brilliant sunshine of his native heath, for the variations in the song of the mocker depend largely upon his surroundings. Thus, in a city he quickly acquires loud, sharp, and unpleasant notes; while in the country, where incessant barn-yard music reigns supreme, he soon adapts himself to his position. Take him, however, free, happy, saucy fellow that he is in the South, in localities where he hears few sounds but the voices of clear-throated birds, and his song is naturally mellow and sweet, standing unsurpassed in its wonderful modulations and gradations, compass, and brilliancy of execution. The mocker seems instinctively to select the prettiest quirks and quavers he can gather from his neighbors. Many of the sweetest notes in his répertoire he acquires from the red or cardinal bird, which has certain liquid, flutelike whistles, all of which our little imitator quickly appropriates, without even the grace of an acknowledgment.

The mocking bird, like all aristocrats, has no humility in his "make-up," and at times this disposition makes him most exasperatingly overbearing—as, for instance, when choice fruit is slowly ripening and the contest begins, to ascertain whether the landowner or Monsieur Mockey shall collect the harvest! Firmly believing himself to be lord of all, the premises resound with the queer, fierce scoldings which he bestows upon all usurpers, and our little gray-coated songster shows a pugnaciousness that is surprising. The sound of a mocker's scolding resembles the sudden splitting of long strips of heavy silk, and, as he has a habit of leaving his voice all along the path behind him as he flies angrily away, fretting and disputing at every step, the sound is so fierce, so long drawn out, and so far extending, that one involuntarily sniffs the air for the sulphurous odor which should, by right, accompany so savage a train of ugliness.

The housekeeping and family cares of a pair of mockers are wearing to themselves and to the entire neighborhood, and attractive as the bird may be in his adult years, as enfant terrible, in all the agonies of the preparatory and freshman year, he is a nuisance of the most tiresome type. As soon as the little ones are coaxed from the nest for their first outing the trouble begins, and the exertion necessary to find sufficient food to fill those never-satisfied, gasping, shrieking throats reduces both parent birds to gaunt and peevish little gray ghosts before the month is out. Indeed, the very sight of this practical, unpoetical side of real life would make many a student of the much-discussed question, "Is marriage a failure?" pause and cry out mentally, "Blessed be single bliss!"

After some four or five weeks of tribulation, these baby mockers—such as escape the sharp beak of the murderous shrike or butcher bird—enter the sophomore class, instinctively assume tall hats, and begin to feed themselves. In spite of the annoyance of their tiresome shrill piping, almost incessant from dawn until sunset, silent only from necessity when their throats are being stuffed with the hard-earned food, they are a funny sight as they sit perched in a row upon a fence-rail, with their tiny feathers fluffed out until the little fellows resemble soft, gray puffballs. There, occasionally flying to some neighboring low-growing shrub for a change, with wings fluttering unceasingly and with heads thrown back to give greater voice room, they will sit for hours, their shrieks arising to squeals of indescribable ecstasy when the old birds approach with the coveted worm. Should a cat chance to stray into their neighborhood, it is very comical to see them all shake, or rather shudder, their tiny wings violently, as they alter their food call to a harsh scrawing sound, thus calling the parent birds back to the rescue.

Putting aside the family question, the mocking bird is, of course, the prettiest and most attractive when the instinct of mating is predominant. As each pair build usually three or four nests, and rear from four to five young at each nesting, one may have many opportunities to witness their courtship methods. The prettiest sight of all is the courtship dance, which should be seen to be appreciated, owing to the deep solemnity and apparent earnestness of the birds. Imagine a large chessboard laid out in chalk lines; make it, say, a yard square; then place the birds thereon, diagonally opposite to each other, one at each extreme corner. The plan of the dance seems to be that they shall hop, or rather bound, slowly from one end to the other, always in a straight line, and not for any one moment to stand directly facing each other, except at the instant of passing.

With bodies stiff and straight as an arrow, head erect and feathers flattened, wings drooping loosely forward, but tails elevated at as acute an angle to the body as possible, the dance solemnly begins. The eyes are steadily fixed, and as methodically as any soldiers upon drill they sturdily go through the movement of bounding, rising quite high and descending in very nearly the same place each time, from one end of the playground to the other, back and forth, always keeping the line about a foot apart. As each one nears his or her corner, each slowly and dignifiedly turns a complete circle, then again faces the other, always diagonally, and slowly bounds back, to repeat the movement at the other end. Sometimes both will turn away to look off at some distant object, just as a cat will apparently forget the mouse she is tormenting. That, however, seems to be only a part of the ceremony, for soon both turn back and the dance is resumed.

One day I chanced to witness one of these pretty sights as it took place beneath the wide-spreading branches of a large orange tree, but the scene was interrupted quite unexpectedly. Just at the most graceful part of an intricate double pirouette, a very puffy and motherly old hen who, with an unlimited number of offspring, had been serenely picking up a dinner close by, evidently felt a sudden impatience at the sight of all this folly, for to my surprise and amusement she made a quick rush and dashed between these happy mockers, startling them almost out of their senses. Instantly the atmosphere was permeated with two separate and distinct streams of silk-splitting fire, each fully a rod long, as the two angry birds departed for the protection of a neighboring lemon tree.

The mocking bird instinctively selects a high perch from which to deliver his song, and the bare boughs of a dead pine tree, or the topmost, ever-swaying branch, of an orange or lemon tree, lie finds well suited to his taste. He is a pretty sight when in some similar position, steadfastly facing the strong ocean wind which tosses his soft gray feathers in breezy fashion, he carols his sweetest to some half-indifferent inamorata not far distant. His little, slender body quivers with excitement in his efforts to drown the song of some stout-lunged rival, who sits gayly perched upon the gilded vane that surmounts the house top; now stopping short in the very middle of a note to hear if that other fellow has discovered his new combinations, and then, as he finds to his dismay that the rascal has them already down to a very fine point (with the addition of several new and surprising twists of his own), starting off again at a tearing pace with a bewildering variety of kinks, quirks, and quavers!

Soon darkness comes upon the scene—for twilight is short in the sunny South—and our musical mocker has sought his snug feather bed in the tree tops; but, by midnight, should the moon chance to be in her full glory of semitropical splendor, the hated memory of that unconquered rival stirs his little brain, and he awakens to pour out his pent-up jealousy in notes that make the welkin ring. The longer he sings the more ecstatic he grows, and after a few sleepy attempts to keep up with the torrent of music, the rival ignominiously subsides, and our little hero has the field to himself, undisputed, till the dawn of another day.