Why Does the Mockingbird Do Just That?


“Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk.”

~Doug Larson

As the summer comes to a close and temperatures begin to fall, an increasing number of Northern Mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) begin to show up here on Kiawah. While Northern Mockingbirds are a year-round resident to this area, their migration habits as a whole are not completely understood. While some remain in the southern portion of their range throughout the year, others still will take advantage of the spring abundance in the north and return southward with the advancing cold in the fall.

Northern Mockingbirds are found in the New World passerine family Mimidae, which includes mockingbirds, thrashers and catbirds. Their name which is Latin for “mimics,” suggests that the birds in this family are known for their ability to vocalize specific imitations of other sounds. However, there may be no other mimic more talented than the Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos = “the many tongued mimic”) which has been heard mimicking cell phone ringtones in Central Park right down to the key and pitch. In my own neighborhood there has been a recent arrival of a Mockingbird which graciously imitates my car alarm at 6:00 in the morning, so well in fact that I have gotten up on several occasions to collect my keys and trudge outside to find my car completely silent.

The amazing ability of this particular bird got me wondering, why does this mockingbird decide to imitate my particular car, or even more generally, why do Northern Mockingbirds mock at all? As it turns out, researchers at the Smithsonian Institute have been asking the same question for quite some time. Ornithologist, Kim Derrickson, explains that the male mockingbird’s ability to imitate noises is how he “sets the mood” for potential mates. Researchers have also found that the Northern Mockingbird’s imitations are analogous to hormonal changes within mates during the nesting season. This behavior is not unlike other Passerines that use strong vocalizations to attract mates, but then why does the Northern Mockingbird not have its own original song to attract its distaff members? According to Smithsonian researchers, the Northern Mockingbird’s use of mimicry allows males to demonstrate their “wisdom,” “longevity,” and ability to survive. In other words, the Northern Mockingbird’s abilities as a mimic shows how much life it has lived and how much it has heard, in turn this demonstrates a given male’s desirability as a genetic companion.

September is a wonderful month for birding on Kiawah.  We say farewell to many of our summer birds such as Mississippi Kites, Chuck-Wills-Widows, Painted Buntings, Northern Parulas and Eastern Kingbirds.  We celebrate the return of Pied-billed Grebes, Northern Flickers, Eastern Phoebes, and kinglets.  Peregrine Falcons and Merlins are occasionally seen overhead as migration brings large numbers to the coast.  To experience the full joy of Kiawah’s bird life, join our naturalists in the field. Whether, walking, kayaking, boating or biking, spectacular avian sighting can be made throughout the island.