Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by Anna Botsford Comstock
 
Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by  Anna Botsford Comstock


[Illustration]

The mockingbird.

Drawing by L. A. Fuertes.

The Mockingbird

Teacher's Story

AMONG all the vocalists in the bird world, the mockingbird is unrivaled in the variety and richness of his repertoire; and he has thus won his place among men, convincing many ignorant people by the means of his voice that a bird is good for something besides "victuals." The mockingbirds go as far north as southern New England, but they are found at their best in the Southern States and in California. On the Gulf Coast the mockers begin singing in February; in warmer climates they sing almost the year through. During the nesting season, the father mocker is so busy with his cares and duties during the day, that he does not have time to sing and so devotes the nights to serenading; he may sing almost all night long if there is moonlight, but even on dark nights he gives now and then a happy, sleepy song. Not all mockingbirds are mockers; some sing their own song which is rich and beautiful; while others learn, in addition, not only the songs of other birds, but their call notes as well. One authority noted a mocker which imitated the songs of twenty species of birds during a ten-minute performance. When singing, the mocker shows his relationship to the brown thrasher by lifting the head and depressing and jerking the tail. A good mocker will learn a tune, or parts of it, if it is whistled often enough in his hearing; he will also imitate other sounds and will often improve on a song he has learned from another bird by introducing frills of his own; when learning a song, he sits silent and listens intently, but will not try to sing it until it is learned.

Although the mockingbirds live in wild places, they prefer the haunts of men, taking up their home sites in gardens and cultivated grounds. Their flight is rarely higher than the tree tops and is decidedly jerky in character with much twitching of the long tail. For nesting sites, they choose thickets or the lower branches of trees, being especially fond of orange trees; the nest is usually from four to twenty feet from the ground. The foundation of the nest is made of sticks, grasses and weed stalks interlaced and crisscrossed; on these is built the nest of softer materials, such as rootlets, horsehair, cotton, or in fact, anything suitable which is at hand. The nest is often in plain sight, since the mocker trusts to his strength as a fighter to protect it. He will attack cats with great ferocity and vanquish them; he will kill snakes; often good-sized black snakes have been known to end thus. The mocker, in making his attack, hovers above his enemy and strikes it at the back of the head or neck; he will also drive away birds much larger than himself.

The female lays from four to six pale greenish or bluish eggs blotched with brown and which hatch in about two weeks; then comes a period of hard work for the parents, as both are indefatigable in catching insects to feed the young. The mocker, by the way, is a funny sight when he is chasing a beetle on the ground, lifting his wings in a pugnacious fashion. The mockers often raise three broods a season; the young birds have spotted breasts, showing their relationship to the thrasher.

As a wooer, the mocker is a bird of much ceremony and dances into his lady's graces. Mrs. F. W. Rowe, in describing this, says that the birds stand facing each other with heads and tails erect and wings drooping; "then the dance would begin, and this consisted of the two hopping sideways in the same direction and in rather a straight line a few inches at a time, always keeping directly opposite each other and about the same distance apart. They would chassez  this way four or five feet, then go back over the same line in the same manner." Mrs. Rowe also observed that the male mockers have hunting preserves of their own, not allowing any other males of their species in these precincts. The boundary was sustained by tactics of both offense and defense; but certain other species of birds were allowed to trespass without reproof.

Maurice Thompson describes in a delightful manner the "mounting" and "dropping" songs of the mocker which occur during the wooing season. The singer flits up from branch to branch of a tree, singing as he goes, and finally on the topmost bough gives his song of triumph to the world; then, reversing the process, he falls backward from spray to spray, as if drunk with the ecstasy of his own song, which is an exquisitely soft "gurgling series of notes, liquid and sweet, that seem to express utter rapture."

The mockingbirds have the same colors in both sexes; the head is black, the back is ashy-gray; the tail and wings are so dark brown that they look black; the tail is very long and has the outer tail feathers entirely white and the two next inner ones are white for more than half their length; the wings have a strikingly broad, white bar, which is very noticeable when the bird is flying. The under parts and breast are grayish white; the beak and legs are blackish. The food of the mockingbirds is about half insects and half fruit. They live largely on the berries of the red cedar, myrtle and holly, and we must confess are often too devoted to the fruits in our orchards and gardens; but let us put down to their credit that they do their best to exterminate the cotton boll caterpillars and moths, and also many other insects injurious to crops.

The mocker is full of tricks and is distinctly a bird of humor. He will frighten other birds by screaming like a hawk and then seem to chuckle over the joke.

Sidney Lanier describes him well:

Whate'er birds did or dreamed, this bird could say.

Then down he shot, bounced airily along

The sward, twitched in a grasshopper, made song

Midflight, perched, prinked, and to his art again.


Lesson XXII

The Mockingbird

Leading thought—The mockingbird is the only one of our common birds that sings regularly at night. It imitates the songs of other birds and has also a beautiful song of its own. When feeding their nestlings, the mockers do us great service by destroying insect pests.


Method—Studies of this bird are best made individually by the pupils through watching the mockers which haunt the houses and shrubbery. If there are mockingbirds near the schoolhouse the work can be done in the most ideal way by keeping records in the school of all the observations made by the pupils, thus bringing out an interesting mockingbird story. The experiment in teaching songs to the birds may best be made with pet mockers.


Observations—

1. At what months of the year and for how many months does the mockingbird sing in this locality?

2. Does he sing only on moonlight nights? Does he sing all night?

3. Can you distinguish the true mockingbird song from the songs which he has learned from other birds? Describe the actions of a mocker when he is singing.

4. How many songs of other birds have you heard a mocker give and what are the names of these birds?

5. Have you ever taught a mocker a tune by whistling it in his presence? If so, tell how long before he learned it and how he acted while learning.

6. Describe the flight of the mockingbirds. Do they fly high in the air like crows?

7. Do these birds like best to live in wild places or about houses and gardens?

8. Where do they choose sites for their nests? Do they make an effort to hide the nest? If not, why?

9. Of what material is the nest made? How is it lined? How far from the ground is it placed?

10. What are the colors of the eggs? How many are usually laid? How long before they hatch?

11. Give instances of the parents' devotion to the young birds.

12. Have you seen two mockingbirds dancing before each other just before the nesting season?

13. In the spring have you heard a mocker sing while mounting from the lower to the upper branches of a tree and then, after pouring forth his best song, fall backward with a sweet, gurgling song as if intoxicated with his music?

14. How many broods does a pair of mockers raise during one season? How does the color of the breast of the young differ from that of the parent?

15. How does the father bird protect the nestlings from other birds, cats and snakes?

16. Does the mocker select certain places for his own hunting grounds and drive off other mockers which trespass?

17. Describe the colors of the mockingbird as follows: Beak, head, back, tail, wings, throat, breast, under parts and feet.

18. What is the natural food of the mockingbirds and how do they benefit the farmer? How does the mocker act when attacking a ground beetle?

19. Have you seen mockingbirds frighten other birds by imitating the cry of a hawk? Have you seen them play other kinds of tricks?

20. Write a little story which shall include your own observations on the ways of pet mockingbirds which you have known.


Supplementary reading—True Bird Stories, Miller, p. 142; Bob, by Sidney Lanier; Second Book of Birds, Miller, p. 34; Birds of Song and Story, Grinnell, p. 29; Stories About Birds, Kirby, p. 94.



"Soft and low the song began: I scarcely caught it as it ran

Through the melancholy trill of the plaintive whip-poor-will,

Through the ringdove's gentle wail, chattering jay and whistling quail,

Sparrow's twitter, catbird's cry, redbird's whistle, robin's sigh;

Blackbird, bluebird, swallow, lark, each his native note might mark.


Oft he tried the lesson o'er, each time louder than before;

Burst at length the finished song, loud and clear it poured along;

All the choir in silence heard, hushed before this wondrous bird.

All transported and amazed, scarcely breathing, long I gazed.

Now it reached the loudest swell; lower, lower, now it fell,—

Lower, lower, lower still, scarce it sounded o'er the rill."

—Joseph Rodman Drake.


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