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A Bird’s View from Winds Way | The Northern Mockingbird

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January 19, 2021

Nancy Gilbert

A monthly column written by Nancy Gilbert with photos by Richard Wines.

Whenever I see a Mockingbird, a fragment of song runs through my head – “Listen to the Mockingbird, listen to the Mockingbird, she’ll sing where weeping willows wave.” I’ve never been sure until now how this popped into my head and stayed there. As it turns out, this song was written in 1855 and became a popular ballad. The song tells the sad story of the singer reminiscing about his deceased sweetheart and a Mockingbird, whose song they loved. The Mockingbird now sings at her grave. While the words are poignant, the tune is lively and has been reworked many times since the original. Carly Simon’s interpretation, with which you may be much more familiar, includes the words “And if that Mockingbird won’t sing, he’s going to buy me a diamond ring.”

Chances of that Mockingbird not singing, it turns out, are totally dependent on the time of year. Mockers, as they are affectionally called by many birders, sing February through August with a second and shorter season of song from September to November. Both males and females sing, but the female usually vocalizes only in the fall, possibly to establish a winter territory. Males tend to sing with more gusto, are more persistent and will often sing through the night during breeding season. Sometimes called the American Nightingale, Mockingbirds are best known for their incredible ability to mimic other birds. In fact, their scientific name – Mimus polyglottas – means many-tongued mimic. Studies have shown that these birds are capable of learning between 150 and 200 songs of other birds and are also able to mimic mechanical noises, such as car horns. While lovely to listen to, this is a skill that helps attract a mate as well as helping the singer establish a resource-rich territory.

Now at Winds Way, we are seeing Mockingbirds in a variety of locations. A favorite perch is the roof of my potting shed, as pictured below. As the daylight lengthens, we should begin to hear birdsong. In addition to their appearance (medium size, grayish overall, two white wing bars, long expressive tail, white patches under tail and wings), Mockers are easily distinguished from other songbirds because they repeat each musical phrase three times and will sometimes repeat it as many as five times. Their close cousin, the Gray Catbird, does not repeat song fragments. Another cousin, the Brown Thrasher, is a two-time repeater.

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Photo by Richard Wines

Permanent residents, Mockingbirds can now be found eating desiccated crab apples, sitting in a holly tree, or on the suet feeder. They are omnivores and eat both insects and fruits and berries. Like many other bird species they change their diet with the seasons. One of the best things you can do to attract these delightful musicians to your property is to provide them with fruit trees and shrubs. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), a native deciduous holly shown below, is beloved not only by Mockingbirds, but also by Cedar Waxwings and American Robins. In addition, the fruits of crab apples and our native Eastern Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana) are great favorites.

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Another widely recognized attribute of Mockingbirds is their fierce territoriality. They will attack and drive off intruders of all shapes and sizes, from hawks to house pets to people. While this is most evident during nesting season, they defend winter territories as well. Generally monogamous, Mockingbirds form long-term pair bonds and can raise 3 or 4 broods per year. They accomplish this by overlapping successive nesting attempts. While the female is brooding the young, the male will build another nest. This process is repeated for each brood. You have probably seen a Mockingbird quickly flick its wings. This wing flash, which reveals white patches on the wings, may be done to startle potential prey but is also a defensive behavior.

Initially Mockingbirds were primarily a bird of the southeastern U.S. But starting in the early 20th century they expanded their range northward and today are found in more than half of the U.S. and in far-eastern Canada as well as Mexico, the Bahamas and on many Caribbean islands. Their move north was helped along by the introduction of invasive exotic shrubs like Multiflora Rose, which provide both food and shelter. In most of their range, they are permanent residents. They thrive in a variety of habitats – open areas with scattered vegetation, urban and suburban settings, forest edges, farmland, desert brush. Sadly, their remarkable ability to mimic other birds led to a drastic decline in numbers in the mid-nineteenth century. Adult birds were trapped, and hatchlings removed from nests to populate bird cages that brought Mockingbird song into people’s homes. Today the population seems to be stable, but threats from collisions, pesticides, and outdoor cats remain.

It is so important to welcome birds to your yards and gardens! Please do so by planting native trees and shrubs, reducing the amount of lawn you care for, providing a source of water (especially in winter), and keeping cats indoors. And listen for the Mockingbird. It will bring you joy.


A Bird’s View from Winds Way is a monthly column by one of our board members and avid birder, Nancy Gilbert — with photos from her husband Richard Wines — on our local birds. Nancy’s columns appear on our blog, so please tune in each month for more from Winds Way.

About the Author

Nancy Gilbert is a board member and a conservation easement donor — as well as avid bird enthusiast and master gardener. In December 2001, Nancy and her husband Richard Wines, donated a conservation easement to the Trust on their property, Winds Way, in Jamesport. This easement protects 9.9 acres of agricultural land as well as 1.7 acres of scenic beachfront woodlands and wetlands on Great Peconic Bay. Also protected by the easement are the facades of the historic buildings located within the 3.2-acre development area, including a Greek-Revival residence, an historic barn, and a mid-19th century one-room schoolhouse. You can learn more about Winds Way and its history on their website: windswayfarm.com

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