Beast of Birdin’

“Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

“Go home! You’re drunk!”

It’s what we’ve groaned several times over the past two weeks, when we — stricken by the middle-age malady of waking up at the witching hour — lay in bed, trying to get back to sleep, and are force-fed sounds from a consarned mockingbird running through the entire collection of 1,001 available bird songs in its iPod library.

It was cute the first couple of times. But that soon gave way to, “Doesn’t he know it’s the middle of the night?” Which gave way to “Oh my god, why doesn’t he stop?” Which gave way to searching the web for explanations.

Northen Mockingbird, aka The Devil

Mockingbirds might, we learned, go through this routine if they’ve lost a partner and are looking for love. It made sense to this old bar-crawler, since the bird was crooning at the time nightclubs around the city traditionally shout last call. I wondered if he’s wearing beer goggles. But then we heard him screech a couple of his notes and concocted a different theory: that this was an adolescent still working on his songs with the practice-guitar-until-your-fingers-bleed mentality of a Seattle grunge rocker.

When I read Charles Seabrook’s praise of these most talented tunesters in today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I was briefly reminded of a more naive time in my life, circa a month ago. And then I wondered how long it would take Mr. Seabrook to change his own personal tune if he had one of these beasts hyperactively hitting shuffle-play just outside his bedroom window.

Would the hallowed Atticus Finch still claim it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird if he couldn’t adequately prepare Tom Robinson’s defense from an inability to either sleep during the night or concentrate during the day? Oh no. He would’ve buckled after four days, taken that bird down with the same sort of steel-eyed clean shot that felled the rabid dog. (And, for the record, The Cornell Lab’s page on mockingbirds classifies them as “low concern” for conservation. Ahem.)

Mitigating factors

So I did learn some cool stuff about mockingbirds.

  • They can learn up to 200 calls. (So my earlier figure was a rounding error.)
  • They pass their learned calls on to the next generation but can pick up new ones — including mimicry of car alarms and washing machines.
  • Though they are technically called northern mockingbirds, before you holler “Go on, git, carpet-bagger!” you should know that they are year-round residents of the whole southeast. Punks.
  • If nabbed by people as younglings and raised by them, they will become extremely friendly with their adoptive parents, even following them room to room. They were sold as pets, for a robust price, in the 19th century.
  • John J. Audubon was quite the fan of the birds’ singing prowess: “They are not the soft sounds of the flute or of the hautboy that I hear, but the sweeter notes of Nature’s own music. The mellowness of the song, the varied modulations and gradations, the extent of its compass, the great brilliancy of execution, are unrivalled,” he wrote in his famous “Birds of America,” circa 1838. And he’s got a point. It’s a lovely sound, when it’s not depriving you of sleep.
  • J.J.A. also was enamored by its mating ritual: “His tail is widely expanded, he mounts in the air to a small distance, describes a circle, and, again alighting, approaches his beloved one, his eyes gleaming with delight, for she has already promised to be his and his only. His beautiful wings are gently raised, he bows to his love, and again bouncing upwards, opens his bill, and pours forth his melody, full of exultation at the conquest which he has made.” So, we’ve seen the mating ritual firsthand, and the most glamorous description I can place on it is a “hump and run.” In the words of singer-songwriter Paul Thorn, as he tells a story about wooing his mate, “This is gonna be good … wasn’t it?”
Oh god, please just take them!
Seriously, people paid money for them? And look at the faces of the poor merchants. This is how we feel every morning. Image courtesy of The British Library.

Insult to injury

Truthfully, I don’t hate Mimus polyglottus, the many-tongued mimic, the tail-twitching rapscallion. And we could probably deal with just the mid-night karaoke.

We endured much worse at a hostel in Anchorage in 2005. That’s when we learned that the “private room” designation at a hostel doesn’t make a distinction as to the thickness of the walls, which in this case did little to protect us from the off-key crooning of a drunk in a midnight choir, belting a ballad that was unidentifiable as presented and certainly outside of his range. Jenn and I envisioned this bearded prospector type, headphones on, really meaning it when he sang, “and I’ll love you forever! ForEVVVVurr! FOREVVVVVVVVVVURRRRRR!!!”

I digress. What I’m trying to say is the mockingbird’s torments didn’t stop there.

Stuck on our porch for much of the current pandemic, we’ve enjoyed watching the collection of birds coming to our front-yard feeder. We watch chickadees whisk in and out. We see bluebirds come for a quick snack. We see finches pull out seed and share it between mates — adorable! We see larger birds, including our mockingbird friend, scour the ground for the bits that the little ones toss to the ground and abandon.

Then the mockingbird started eyeing the ripening blueberries on the eight bushes in our front yard. Those berries are a key cog in our homesteading plan — providing us with fruit for cereal, granola, desserts and snacks for a full year.

Welp, I thought, time to cover the blueberries with bird netting.

Which I did. But the mockingbird, undaunted, just landed on the branches through the netting. It got to be a game with him. He would land on the ripest bush. I would take a few steps, waving my arms and psshking him away. He would fly back to a dogwood, then come back in as soon as I sat down.

Rinse, repeat.

Soon he was retreating less far away, landing instead on our little persimmon tree, loaded with unripe fruit. And I’d be all, “Ohnoyoudi’nt.” At this point he knows enough to stay off the fruit, at least when I’m on the porch. But I’ll open the front door and see him quickly fly away, so he’s not completely abandoned his quest.

And trying to see it from his point of view, he may just be confused at our anger.

“Dude, I serenade you guys all night, and this is the thanks I get?”

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