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Sleepless in Santee asks about mockingbird songs

They're most vocal at night, in the spring, at full moon

To: Matmail: Okay, they may be the state bird of Texas, but mockingbirds are driving me nuts. One has moved into the tree outside my bedroom window, and another is in the backyard, and they sing all night long. None of the songs they sing lasts more than about five bars, and each song is different. Are they really singing some other birds' songs (truly “mocking” them), or are they making it all up as they go along, or do they have a whole list of songs genetically programmed at birth? Oh, yeah. Is there anything that would make them shut up without killing them? — Sleepless in Santee

Male mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) copy anything they can hear — other bird songs, car alarms, whistles, squeaky door hinges, croaking frogs, yowling cats, crying babies — maybe even you cursing at them in the dark. Scientists have analyzed mockingbird imitations that were electronically indistinguishable from the original sounds.

Nobody’s sure why they do it. Each mocker learns its species-specific songs and call notes, complete with the bird equivalent of a regional accent, but then adds endless choruses of environmental sounds. The birds are most vocal (especially at night, especially during the full moon) in the spring, so it’s likely the songs are territorial markers related to the nesting/mating urge. Some ornithologists speculate they might be advertising their age and status; the longer and more complicated the songs, the more of a big shot the bird is. The equivalent of the Tarzan yell.

Mockers do sing during the day, but their voices aren’t as noticeable or irritating, what with all the other irritating noise from cars, TVs, etc., that don’t interfere at three in the morning. And other birds, like the locally common killdeer, will vocalize at night. But the loud, pugnacious, hormone-riddled male mockingbird in mating season is truly the champion. A real guy’s kinda bird; no yin, heavy on the yang. The state bird of Texas, indeed.

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