Mockingbird Song

Earl Vickers, October 1997

Mockingbirds appear to take pleasure in their improvisation. If you've ever watched a mocker sitting on a telephone pole, staying up all night on a full moon jamming his tiny little brains out, it's hard to ignore the sheer exuberance. Sure he may be attracting a mate or chasing away a competitor, but humans can also have multiple reasons for making music — love, money, etc. — and what's wrong with that?

Sometimes when a mockingbird impresses himself with a particularly good riff, he does a little somersault and goes right back to singing. That's got to feel good, on a physical level, whether or not a potential mate is watching and listening. As Blake said, "How do you know but ev'ry bird that cuts the airy way is an immense world of delight, clos'd by your senses five?"

I'll put in my vote for the mockingbird as favorite non-human musician, the eastern mockingbird in particular. Sometimes in college I would lie awake much of the night actively listening to them, trying to follow their melodic evolutions as I fell asleep. Whether they're consciously musical or not, well, who's to say. Are we?

I think of the mockingbird as our native jazz musician, and I can't help but suspect that the ubiquitous sound of the mockingbird throughout the South may have played some role in the birth of jazz as a uniquely American art form. No other area of the world, as far as I know, has a bird so devoted to improvisation.

Mockingbirds, while unmatched in their musical thievery, aren't limited to pure imitation — that's just where they get part of their vocabulary. Though thoroughly rooted in the avian folk tradition, a large part of their song is pure mockingbird. Then they weave this melodic raw material together using call and response, theme and variation, things that ought to take a big mammalian brain, and they do it all much faster than a human could.

I haven't analyzed mockingbird sounds on the computer yet, but I know they do pretty convincing imitations of thrushes who, having two sets of vocal apparatus, can sing harmony with themselves. If you record thrushes and slow them way down, you hear the most exquisite and haunting harmonies — little 4 or 5 note melodies harmonized in major and minor thirds. At any rate, mockingbirds can do amazing things with amplitude and frequency modulation. When recorded and slowed down to 1/4 speed, notes that initially sounded like trills and texture often turn out to be intricate melodic and rhythmic patterns.

Most birds seem content to play a single instrument in the orchestra of the outdoors, but mockingbirds want to do it all. No doubt this is partly because they're so relentlessly territorial, and not just toward birds — they'll terrorize a timid dog by swooping down and snapping at its tail, possibly just for the fun of it. If they appropriate other sounds, maybe they can chase away those unwanted birds, cats, creaking doors and car alarms.

I've had many mockingbird-related dreams. In one of them, a mockingbird had apparently learned the "Andy of Mayberry" theme song through our screen door. Another featured a woman screaming, "Yes, yes, yes..."; upon awakening, this turned out to be a mockingbird singing "nyess, nyess..." It seems appropriate that humans and mockingbirds interpenetrate each other's consciousness, as we do with our shared soundscape.

I once read about a mockingbird joining in with the flute or piccolo part at an outdoor Fourth of July celebration in Washington, DC. This seems totally appropriate; the mockingbird is a big part of the American soundtrack and should probably be our national bird. It may be somewhat plain-looking, with a slightly harsh voice and some territorial issues, but this ugly American is a veritable melting pot of melodic ideas, embodying so much of the national character — the relentless drive, the joy in improvisation, the whole "out of many, one" thing. Eagles are majestic, but when I hear America singing, I hear the mockingbird.


Other essays on bird song