Popular Science Monthly/Volume 52/January 1898/The King of the Woods


VERY few persons ever visit the southern portion of the United States and become at all familiar with its woodland life without being captivated by that prince of singers, the mocking bird. Not only as a musician, but in general "smartness," he is far and away ahead of anything else that flies. He is the "Yankee" among birds. In vivacity, in cleverness, in a quick and dexterous use of his small but brilliant brain, it would be hard to point out his equal. And when in the springtime the woods resound with his clear, flutelike, and exultant notes, even the man, if such there be, "who hath no music in his soul" would find it hard to resist the contagious good humor of his glad and gleeful song.

And yet the mocking bird (Mimus polyglottus) is incorrectly named. He is by no means a natural mimic. Half a dozen birds could be mentioned that in this particular far surpass him. This may seem a very strange thing to say, in view of the stories current so abundantly illustrating and emphasizing this supposed gift.

Professor Chandler, in a notable case in a Boston court, once remarked that it was practically impossible for most people to tell the truth even if they tried. Especially is this the case in observing scientific phenomena by persons not trained in that special field. Imagination often plays strange tricks with the recording cameras in such excited brains. As an illustration bearing upon the case in point: A lady had a beautiful grove of young oaks in her front yard of several acres in extent. It was fairly alive with mocking birds. It was in the springtime at their first nesting season, and many of the young birds were beginning to try their wings. One morning Jim, the lazy old tomcat, was missed from his accustomed corner on the sunny porch, and soon was heard a chorus of confused and stridulent cries issuing from the back part of the grove, and there came Jim scampering toward the house, pursued by half a dozen or more of mocking birds. They were darting down upon him and pecking at him from all directions, with special reference to putting out the eyes of the now thoroughly frightened cat, while from their angry little throats all the while was pouring forth a torrent of bird "billingsgate" that could hardly have been excelled by "our army in Flanders." At the dinner table this lady gave a very graphic account of how the tables had been turned on Jim. "But the most singular thing of all," said she, "was that when those mocking birds were pecking away at the eyes of that poor cat, they were all crying ‘Scat, scat, scat!’" The mocking bird has an angry note consisting of the syllable "ka-a," with short a, sharply and rapidly repeated, and it required no great effort on this lady's part to put an s in front of the k, especially as there was the cat running for dear life, and the confused cries of his winged pursuers did have a great deal of resemblance to the tones of a woman who has surprised pussy with her head in the cream jug.

The fact is that this southern songster has naturally a very extensive repertoire of sounds, most of them musical, to which he seldom adds a new note, and which he generally arranges in pretty definite order. Among these sounds not a few more or less resemble the songs or cries of our common forest birds. It does not require so very vigorous an imagination to transform what is simply the natural note of the mocking bird into a very fair imitation of his less gifted neighbors. That there is any conscious or intentional mimicry about it, facts go to disprove. An isolated bird will sing his own notes and imitate songs he never heard. So, too, with the mocking bird's supposed imitation of the "miew" of a cat, the cry of a chicken, etc., they are all alike the natural notes of the bird plus a little imagination, which the circumstances supply. In point of fact, the mocking bird is a very dull pupil when you attempt to teach him any new musical sounds or combinations of sounds. Whether it is because he "knows it all" already, or is indifferent to new music, the fact remains. One bird, a beautiful natural singer, received patient teaching at night in an unlighted room for a month before he seemed to be trying in an awkward way to imitate the notes of his instructor. It was very much "mixed," but it was clearly an attempt at his lesson—the first five notes of "Rory O'More." This was encouraging, and showed that an impression had at length been made upon the tiny brain. Efforts were redoubled, and at the end of three months the bird could whistle fairly well the first two bars of the song. Still he not infrequently made mistakes, forgot his small "score," and was by no means a success as a singer of anything but his own natural and inimitable songs. As a household pet the mocking bird is simply delightful. If taken young and reared in a cage he becomes very tame. He will fly to your knee, eat from your fingers, perch on top of your head, jump down to your shoulder, pull your whiskers, if you have whiskers, give you little love taps on your cheek, and in a hundred cunning ways evince his sociable and friendly disposition. He loves to get out of his cage and fly about the room, and if there are no cats about seldom attempts to fly out of the window. One caution, however, is necessary. A bit of cloth or a thread is a great find for a mocking bird. He will spread out his wings, flirt his tail, cock his eye, twist and turn his quick little head, and shrug his shoulders in a comical pantomime of astonishment. Then he will dart to some desk top or chair round, and the first you know he is swallowing it. A few such experiences are disastrous.

In New York there is one of these wonderfully gifted little pets named Peter. He is just four months from the nest, and was taken from Florida with several others before the stringent laws protecting song birds were promulgated. He has already his Maltese coat and new tail, and is in every respect a precocious bird, not only equaling in song many a full-grown singer, but rivaling the best of them in amusing antics and in genuine intelligence. He takes the end of a piece of thread tied to a spool, jumps over his perch to the floor, and keeps this up till he has wound all of the thread on the perch, and has the spool suspended in the air. Then that game is done. He next takes a corner of the clean white paper that is put into his cage to cover the floor every morning after his bath, and with his beak persistently rolls it up like a carpet, and leaves it at one end of his cage. He opens the latch of his door and walks out whenever he pleases.

Here in Orlando, Florida, the mocking birds are far the most numerous birds. They are now protected by the most stringent laws. To kill, catch, or even keep one in a cage, is an offense punishable by heavy fine and possible imprisonment. In a short space of time the result is that they have multiplied wonderfully, and are just about as tame as chickens. They frequently fly into the kitchen, and have been known sometimes voluntarily to enter a cage in pursuit of food.

One of the most interesting traits of these birds is their fearlessness. In defense of their supposed rights, and especially in protecting their young, they will fight anything from a dog to an elephant. One reason probably why the English sparrow has never obtained much of a foothold in the South is because some mocking-bird congress has passed "bird immigration laws," which positively shut out this pestilent and aggressive European intruder. "Bob whites," blue jays, woodpeckers, shrikes, and the beautiful little mourning doves, the smallest known species, and other varieties less frequently seen—all seemingly have perpetual treaties of peace with the mocking birds. The only one that gets into a "scrap" with the "boss of the forest" is the shrike, a short, chunky little fellow, about the size of the mocking bird, and with a powerful beak with which he delights to impale small animals upon orange thorns. One would suppose that the mocking bird would be in deadly fear of this little feathered bully. Not a bit of it! Other birds may run from the shrike, but he doesn't. Both love to build their nests in the orange trees, and there are frequent questions of "Squatter sovereignty" to be settled by beak and claw. Whether by lung power or muscle, in the final "compromise" the shrike always goes to another tree.

As to the morals of this little past master of song, the truth must be told, he has no respect for the eighth commandment. He is a thief, a cunning, inveterate, unscrupulous "conveyer" of other people's property. Peaches, grapes, strawberries, figs, Japan persimmons, Surinam cherries, Catley guavas, are to him legitimate plunder. With the exception of oranges, bananas, pineapples, and ordinary guavas, which he never touches, nothing is safe from his depredations. Scarecrows don't even amuse him when he has made up his mind to sample fruit. He is a capital judge, too, and always selects the largest, ripest, and most juicy specimens for his repast. No economic considerations trouble him either. He takes a bite here and a nibble there, and ruins twenty times as much as he consumes. Bagging fruit is no protection, for he only tears the bags to pieces and helps himself. Even vines and fig trees incased in mosquito netting are not secure; the little marauder will get in somehow and complacently take what he wants.

Yet, in spite of all this, the benefits received by the south land from this cunning little giver of sweet sounds and lover of sweet fruits vastly outweigh all the damage that he does, however vexatious it may be. Bugs and worms and creeping things swarm here the year round. The mocking bird is essentially insectivorous. His "steady diet" consists of the enemies that the horticulturist and the fruit grower have most occasion to dread. He takes his fruit by way of dessert, and has fairly earned it like a good boy by eating first a substantial dinner.

A Berzelius museum is to be established by the Swedish Academy of Science, with funds provided by Prof. Hj Sjorgen. It is to hold all the objects formerly contained in the laboratory of the great chemist—which are now scattered in various places. In connection with it a list of all the works and treatises of Berzelius is to be compiled.