Volume 14, Issue 34 ~ August 24 - August 30, 2006


Songs of the Woods

by Dotty Doherty

Walking beside the pond in Quiet Waters Park in Annapolis, past tittering barn swallows dipping and swaying, I hear a blue jay call and I search for his crested head above the meadow. At the top of a dead snag, a slim silhouette stands gray against the evening sky, and I smile.

“You fooled me again,” I laugh, as the mockingbird slips seamlessly from blue jay bluster into the three-part song of a Carolina wren.

Mockingbirds embrace mimicry and are capable of learning and singing up to 200 songs. I listen more intently. Next, he intones his best cardinal call, tuuu, tuuu, tuuu, then another cardinal variation, birdy-birdy-birdy-birdy. Not one to spend long on one species, he chants five to seven phrases before launching into titmouse, back to a different blue jay call, now a robin.

He’s not just good; he’s a virtuoso. The cardinal and Carolina wren might scoff, but I bet they are listening. Keeping their territories clear of other males of their species is part of their business, and this songster, I’m sure, keeps them on their toes.

Not all mockingbirds have his talent. One sings outside my office window. Like a brown thrasher or catbird, he tries out different sounds. He includes some mimicry in his squeaky, staccato songs, but like poor avian karaoke, he has not perfected the other birds’ voices and relies on improvisation.

Other mimics cruise these woods. The catbird, in a tumbling gush of sound, does not linger on any one note but scrambles ever forward, jabbering out moments of grackle and red-winged blackbird, snippets of cowbird and gull before issuing his cat-like merraaa, reminding us of his namesake.

One blue jay does a fine rendition of the kee-urrr of a red-shouldered hawk. A red-eyed vireo throws in a few goldfinch phrases. But no other North American bird compares to the mockingbird. Especially this mockingbird of the snag.

Why mimic? In The Singing Life of Birds, Donald Kroodsma suggests a few possibilities. Perhaps the mockingbird is simply showing off, strutting his stuff, defining his territory. But mockingbirds have also been known to imitate sirens and other technological sounds. From his years of listening and watching birds, Kroodsma suspects the mockingbird’s singing style may have to do with the ladies.

Is this mockingbird a Romeo, singing to his one lady love? Or a Casanova, crooning to every female in earshot? Is his Juliet hiding, or is he a bachelor looking for some action? Even if I could camp out here for days, I would not unravel his secret. So I simply enjoy the concert.

I listen to his final notes as I enter the firefly-flecked woods. The mockingbird’s osprey call floats through the darkening green, followed by his catbird squawl, red-bellied woodpecker chatter, and a repeat rendition of the Carolina wren’s tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle. He has me smiling at his extensive repertoire.

Woodthrush voices, from actual woodthrushes, sing their last bell-like ee-oo-lay’s of the evening as I wander deeper into the dusky trees, leaving the mockingbird behind. These thrushes do not need to mimic; they are a chorus unto themselves. Suddenly, they switch songs and emphatically whip out their whitt-whitt-whitt calls. Their final curtain call, this brazen blast echoes through the understory and declares the woods shut down for the night.

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