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Mockingbirds Are Night Singers

Dear Bird Folks,

Every summer we look forward to waking up to the songs sung by our local mockingbird. But this year it has gone crazy. For some reason it is singing throughout the night and now I am sleepless in Eastham. What is going on?

– Michael, Eastham, MA


It could be worse, Michael,

I’m sorry you are having trouble sleeping, but I have just the opposite problem. It seems I’ve been asleep for the past twelve years. When I received your question, I put it aside because I had just written about this very topic…or so I thought. When I checked the archives (can you believe I have archives?) I discovered that I had written about a night singing mockingbird on July 20th…2001!!! Wow! Where have I been for the past twelve years? I wonder what else I’ve missed. The next thing you’ll be telling me is that former congressman, Anthony Weiner, is sending inappropriate photos from his phone. Like that would happen.

Around here we call mockingbirds, “mockingbirds,” but the books tell us that they are actually Northern Mockingbirds. Why are the books so fussy? It’s because there are sixteen different species of mockingbirds in the world. But those other mockers are found south of the U.S., so they call ours “Northern.” Hmm, makes sense.

Most mockingbirds, including ours, aren’t very exciting to look at. They tend to be kind of generic gray birds with a bit of white here and there. There are a few exceptions, however, including Central America’s handsome Blue-and-white Mockingbird. I’ve never seen one of those beautiful birds in the wild, but I’ve seen plenty of photos and someday I’m going take a trip to see one. Well, I’m going unless Central America has snakes, but I don’t think it does. In addition to having similar colors, mockingbirds also have one other thing in common – their uncanny singing ability. Mockingbirds don’t have their own songs; instead they copy sounds from their environment. Typically, they imitate songs of other birds, but they have also been known to replicate the sounds of car alarms, doorbells and barking dogs. (They sound like barking dogs, eh? In that case, there must be a million mockingbirds in my neighborhood.) The name mockingbird is a bit misleading because they don’t “mock” anybody, or any bird. They are more like avian impersonators, paying tribute to the songs of other birds. By claiming to “pay tribute,” they can copy other birds without having to pay royalties.

Each spring male mockingbirds choose a territory and defend it by blasting out the aforementioned songs. At first the birds sing while hidden in tree branches, but after a week or so they gain confidence and start singing from exposed perches. These exposed perches may be a treetop, a fencepost or a TV antenna. (Do people still use TV antennas, or has that changed in the last twelve years, too?) When a male mocker enters another male’s territory the singing stops and things become a bit testy. The resident bird will fly after the intruder, flashing his bold wing bars and tail feathers. Eventually though, the males learn each other’s boundaries and there is peace in the neighborhood. But that doesn’t mean the males stop singing, but only now their songs aren’t designed to keep each other away. They are singing to attract the ladies. It is thought the females are attracted to the males that are the best singers. (Whew! It’s good that singing thing doesn’t apply to humans or I’d still be looking for my first date.)

Ironically, when a female finally does arrive on a male’s territory, she too may be chased away. (Female mockingbirds look just like the males, so the confusion is understandable.) Ultimately, the chasing turns into courting and the pair settles down and begins the task of raising a family. At this point, the male takes a break from all the singing and focuses on being a dad. So if the mockingbird in your yard suddenly becomes less vocal, it’s likely he has found a mate. On the other hand, if spring turns into summer and your mockingbird continues singing his heart out, he’s likely to be a lonely bachelor and his love songs are going unanswered. It’s all so sad.

What an unmated male mockingbird lacks in singing skills, he makes up for in tenacity. He will continue to sing all day, everyday and if that doesn’t do the trick, he will visit the nearest Starbucks, order a double espresso and start singing late at night as well. This is what is going on in your yard. The bird that is keeping you up at night is most likely an unmated mockingbird. The light of a bright moon or the shining of a streetlight, plus a double espresso, is all the stimulation he needs to get up and try again.

Having a mockingbird singing outside your window at 3:00 AM can be annoying, Michael, but the good news is it should stop in a few weeks. Eventually, your lonesome mocker will find a mate or pack it in, get some singing lessons and try again next year. In the meantime, there isn’t much you can do, except maybe run an electric fan to help block out the singing. Either that or you could try to find the poor bird a mate. I was going to suggest that you post a photo of your mockingbird online, but you’ll probably only get a response from Anthony Weiner. I think he’ll respond to anything.