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May 28, 2003

Posted by Teresa at 12:31 AM *

Jane! Help! In the tree right outside my door, a bird is singing louder than I’ve ever heard a bird sing before, one song after another. It sounds like a blackbird or a mockingbird — all whoops and trills and mad lyricism — and it’s singing nonstop at top volume, in Brooklyn, in the middle of the night. Patrick say it’s like finding yourself in an Arabian Nights story.

The neighbors from across the street were also drawn out to try to get a look at it, only they had the good sense to bring a big flashlight. I eventually spotted it moving, up there amidst the maple leaves, and turned the beam on it.

It’s pale gray on the underside, with a very long narrow squarish tail that has a little notch in the middle of its end. There may be a pinstripe of darker coloration down the middle of the tail and some right at the end, as though it has flicked the end of its tail in graphite dust, and it might have had a thin dark line between its eye and beak. It’s long-bodied, elegant really; and I think it’s smaller than a mockingbird. I might be wrong on the size. It might be a mocker. Oh, and it’s got a default sort of beak. And from some angles it looks like it may have a tuft on top of its head like a jay. But it’s definitely not some kind of jay, not even a mutant albino one. Too small, and it’s got the wrong beak.

Could you please ask David what it is? And if he knows, could you also ask him what it’s up to? I’ve never heard a bird sing grand opera like this before — not at night, at any rate.

Jane has the answer:
T—here’s the definitive from David:
“It sounds like a mockingbird. They have individual and large repertoires. Is it repeating things around three times typically? This is a key. Singing all night near a light during breeding season is typical mockingbird behavior. If it persists and is keeping you up at night, shoot the bird, break the light, chop the tree down (probably wouldn’t work, other perches available), or let the season pass.”
So speaks The Master.
So it was a mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos, which was what I thought when I first heard it; only I didn’t believe it, because I didn’t think we got mockingbirds up here. I’ve always thought of them as a southern species. I was also confused by only being able to see it from below. They’re easier to spot in profile, and have a distinctive white flash on the backs of their wings.

I’ve known from mockingbirds ever since I was a kid in Arizona, where my Granny taught me that if you whistle back at them in imitation, they’ll get het up and swear at you in mockingbirdese. I hadn’t previously encountered their habit of singing all night when they’re in search of a lady friend. Maybe the birds in Arizona had less trouble finding each other.

Here’s a recording of one, though his repertoire is only about half to a third as long as the guy in our tree.

I have to say that when one is singing in a low tree, in a street that’s wall-to-wall Brooklyn row houses on both sides, it can be remarkably loud. It wasn’t the loudest sound I’ve ever heard a bird make. That honor goes to the time a cat and a seagull got into a fight over a piece of fish on the windowsill of our Cape Cod B&B in the middle of the night. But it was enough to make one then another then another of my neighbors wander out into the street to see what was making all that racket.

My favorite was the guy who stood there with his hands in his pockets, listening while the bird cycled through its repertoire several times, then said “Dat bird sings like a car alarm.”

Oh, too bad: One thing still puzzled me: Why would a bird be putting on a mating display this late in the season? I got my answer this afternoon, when I spotted a dead fledgling on the sidewalk under the maple tree.

That kind of display I have seen before. When we were living on Staten Island, the local crow community had a fledgling go down in my neighbor’s yard when it was right on the edge of being able to fly. The crows staged an avian Black Hawk Down, keeping up an earsplitting racket for days to drive off the neighborhood cats and possums. They meant it, too; my neighbor couldn’t go in or out her back door until the downed crow was gone from her yard.

Comments on Bird!:
#1 ::: Alter S. Reiss ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2003, 01:13 AM:

This sounds rather like a nightingale. I'm not sure if there are nightingales native to Brooklyn, but it could be an escaped pet or an off-course migrant.

#2 ::: Chuq Von Rospach ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2003, 01:20 AM:

That's very likely a mockingbird, especially if it's singing songs stolen from other birds. This is the time of year for males who haven't attracted a mate to stay up all night letting the world know the fact. They can be quite wonderful, if they're far enough away to not be annoying...

It probably isn't the first time we've been kept up late by a neighbor who got stood up, either... (grin)

#3 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2003, 01:41 AM:

Almost certainly a mockingbird. This time of the year Gary bogue's column in the San Ramon Valley Times is full of tales of mockingbirds keeping people up nights and what people do to discourage them. Check out

They can be very very loud.


#4 ::: Bob Devney ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2003, 02:23 AM:

I don't suppose this could be the avian intimidator Robert Benchley describes in "The First Pigeon of Spring"? It seems to have been quite a forward bird, waking him up rudely toward dawn. As he says, "[T]here was a big bull-pigeon walking about on the window ledge and giving me an occasional leer with its red eyes, all the while rumbling in a deep, bass voice and giving every indication of immediate attack."

I realize this doesn't really match Teresa's description. But it just sounded like a New York kind of bird to me, all right.

#5 ::: Lois Fundis ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2003, 03:03 AM:

Mockingbird would be my guess too.

I don't think nightingales are native to or at all common in North America, unless (as Alter suggests) it's an escapee. They aren't even listed in my Audubon Field Guide to North American Birds.

#6 ::: Andrew Brown ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2003, 04:42 AM:

If there are nightingales in Brooklyn, that's what you've got. If there aren't, there should be.

#7 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2003, 04:46 AM:

The real giveaway for a mockingbird is the variety of songs. If the bird cycles through a seemingly bottomless reserve of trills, squeaks, squawks, caws, and car-alarm sounds, it's gotta be a mockingbird. The rest of the description matches. I've heard them in New England and suburban Maryalnd and they are truly something to listen to. I was so impressed the last time I heard one late at night that I took out my cell phone and dialed up a few people I knew who had office voicemail, held it as close to the bird as I could, and left them messages from it.
I later found out this wasn't so wise a thing to do. Apparently mockingbirds are quite aggressive and will pull a number straight of Alfred Hitchcock if you get too close to them. So I'd be cautious about getting too near, and just sit back and enjoy the concert.

#9 ::: Jane Yolen ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2003, 08:12 AM:

T--here's the definitive from David:

"It sounds like a mockingbird. They have individual and large repertoires.Is it repeating things around three times typically? This is a key.

Singing all night near a light during breeding season is typical mockingbird behavior. If it persists and is keeping you up at night, shoot
the bird, break the light, chop the tree down (probably wouldn't work, other perches available), or let the season pass."

So speaks The Master.


#10 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2003, 11:42 AM:

Very loudest bird song I have heard was at the Metro zoo; an african bird with a warbling tune remarkably like a slip jig, and which did not stop, pause, or diminish. After a minute or two, quoth the biologist I was with -- "It must be a circular breather."

#11 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2003, 02:29 PM:

Yeah, mockingbird. They're like that.

The prohibition against killing them must be profound — otherwise disturbed sleepers would have slain them all long ago.

Years ago, I was visiting D. Potter when she still lived on Broadway Terrace, in New York. The sort of car alarm that cycles through a number of different alarming sounds had just made its advent, and one of them, in fact, had made its advent on Broadway Terrace in the middle of the night, not far from D.'s ground-floor bedroom window. Ever since that night I have referred to that style of car alarm as a "Manhattan mockingbird."

#12 ::: India ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2003, 06:36 PM:

Yep, mockingbird. We get them in my part of Brooklyn, too.

As a born and bred city kid, I never used to believe that you could tell birds apart by their songs--just like I never believed it was possible to really see anything by the light of the moon, until I was sixteen and lying in a cornfield in upstate New York and noticed how bright it was. I'm just slow that way. So I'd been hearing mockingbirds gabbling around my block for years before I realized that they must be those famous mockingbirds.

I've also learned to identify mourning doves. I'm a regular nature-girl nowadays.

#13 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2003, 07:01 PM:

If you've been listening to mockingbirds, you've heard the songs of a dozen or more other species. The challenge now is to figure out which ones they are.

I play spot-the-hawk when I'm driving to Boskone. It's a good time of year for it. One year I counted eleven.

#14 ::: Lois Fundis ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2003, 10:26 PM:

Here's another good soundbite of a mockingbird:

Especially interesting is the last part, that sounds just like an electrical wire on the fritz!

#15 ::: Jane Yolen ::: (view all by) ::: May 29, 2003, 06:44 AM:

David does bird recording for Cornell. I wonder if that's one of his.


#16 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 29, 2003, 07:59 AM:

That buzzing noise at the end? I've always thought of it as sounding like a stick scraped across a rough surface, though it may be that what it originally sounded like was a crow.

Do mockingbirds play telephone? How faithfully do they reproduce sounds, and do they learn sampled sounds from each other?

#17 ::: janeyolen ::: (view all by) ::: May 29, 2003, 09:08 AM:

Next time you are up for a visit, David will certainly play you his studies of ring ouzels. What is so astonishing is that dialects differ from Scottish glen to Scottish glen! You can listen to them and then look at the sonograms. It's quite a show.

He also has a complete Scottish birdsong power point show.

As to mockers, why we have them up here,and certainly into Vermont/NHampshire, so NY is not their northernmost territory at all.


#18 ::: Ed Gaillard ::: (view all by) ::: May 29, 2003, 01:37 PM:

Oh,yes, New York City get mockingbirds; not a lot, but some. I've seen them in Manhattan, in Riverside and in Carl Schurz parks (and in Central Park, of course, but I think you can find almost anything in Central Park).

I remember when I was a kid in Queens (Fresh Meadows), there was a mocker that sometimes used to perch on the steeple of the church we went to. Startling and lovely to emerge from the building after Mass and find him making a joyful noise from the highest point in the vicinity.

#19 ::: Scott ::: (view all by) ::: May 29, 2003, 02:56 PM:

I can't recall ever living anywhere that didn't get mockingbirds. I certainly heard them now and then when I lived in Queens.

What I want to know is, did the inventor of the car alarm get the idea from listening to mockingbirds, or did mockingbirds learn to do that from hearing car alarms?

#20 ::: marty ::: (view all by) ::: May 29, 2003, 11:39 PM:

The song segment you had, Teresa, was very like the one the mockingbird sings here, in San Francisco.

Yes, he sings (you know it is the same wave sign as a barking dog, right?) all night long at times.

The mockingbird drove the robins away from the pyracantha I planted. He now raises a brood every year. Now the coralies are driving the mockingbirds away. Gets noisy around here at times.

#21 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 30, 2003, 07:49 AM:

Actually, Jane, David showed us his web site with the sonograms of ring ourzels just the other day, while you were down the hall talking to Jonathan! The complexity of bird "culture" is consistently stunning to me.

#22 ::: Holly M ::: (view all by) ::: May 30, 2003, 12:10 PM:

re: mockingbirds making noises like a car alarm... I have heard one do exactly that. When I lived with my parents in a rural subivision, our nearest neighbor had a loud nasty car alarm on his SUV--the kind that goes through several different rhythms and pitches. He set it off nearly every morning at five a.m. as he was going to work, so I got the sequence memorized.

Well, my mom had a recurring mockingbird visitor who liked her sweet gum tree, and one spring, after the neighbor had moved in and brought his SUV, the mockingbird started waking us up every morning, singing the same pattern, pitch, and repetition as the car alarm.

#23 ::: Jane Yolen ::: (view all by) ::: May 30, 2003, 12:44 PM:

Oh--was THAT what you were all doing while I tried to pry information from Jonathan about our various projects. Hah!

Did you know that if you slow down bird song to about a quarter, it sounds like whale song. And vice versa.


#24 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: May 30, 2003, 10:14 PM:

There's several mockingbirds around my home in Connecticut. They certainly can sing. They also often harass the (much larger) crows, chasing, 'barking', and pecking or otherwise tagging a fleeing crow in mid-flight.

They seem to like being at high spots. They're often perched at the peak of a roof, the top of a shrub, etc. Not necessarily the highest point around, but the local maxima.
I suppose the high spots are best for looking for bugs to eat.

#25 ::: lnh ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2003, 12:01 PM:

Mockingbirds regularly kept me awake on hot summer nights growing up in Washington, DC. There was an excellent tree right outside my bedroom window, clearly illuminated by a streetlight. And it last ALL SUMMER LONG, until the heat broke. I eventually figured out territoriality is important to the darn things not just during mating, but all through nesting season.

When I moved to Arizona, I was startled by how much smaller western mockingbirds are than eastern birds (a couple inches shorter, and more slender). But they otherwise behave the same, terrorizing cats and singing through the summer night. I use walking out the bedroom door at midnight and being able to hear that distinctive song as a rumor that summer is here. They haven't kept me awake, tho' -- Tucson is darker, streetlightingwise, than DC, and the swamp-cooler is a noisy thing.


#26 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2003, 12:56 PM:

Okay, so they are a different bird? I was trying to find something on that, and couldn't.

#27 ::: lnh ::: (view all by) ::: June 03, 2003, 04:42 PM:

They're considered subspecies (in the older-fashioned references, at any rate -- I suspect they're now thought of regional variants), with the transition zone roughly in the middle Plains.

They've been extending their range northward throughout the 20th century, with first appearances in Maine and Vancouvre being in the 1930s. Their natural habitat is forest edges, and like others who live there, adapt to urban lawns without trouble. Many insects, worms, and berries are there.


#28 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2003, 02:15 AM:

I got home an hour ago, and there were at least two mockingbirds having some sort of concert with one another. It sounded as if one were in a tree across the acroaa the street leftward about 150 feet, and the other were in a tree about 150 feet away on this side of the street, off to the right. There may have been a third bird involved, two, but there were definitely at least two, sometimes one would follow the other with the same call and sometime something slighly changed.

Mockingbirds can get extremely noisy, but they're quieter than woodpeckers.... thought the mockingbird by my parent's unit down in Florida, does ambulance siren imitation, at ambulance siren sound levels. (It's a gated over-50 community, and the ambulance visit there frequently....)

#29 ::: Lori A ::: (view all by) ::: June 07, 2003, 02:59 AM:

Help...I guess we have mockingbirds in the trees outside our bedroom window. I am writing this at 1:57am. They are keeping us awake!!!! I don't want to disturb nature, but there has to be something we can do. They sing ALL night long!
Please~any suggestions??

#30 ::: lnh ::: (view all by) ::: June 11, 2003, 10:14 AM:

A mockingbird story for your morning coffee. It turns out the kreee! kreee! kreee! I've been hearing on my way to work (I bike) were Harris hawk juveniles. It looked like three of them, but it was hard to tell through the pine branches. These are loud youngsters, btw — I can hear them two blocks (short side) away.

A short digression on Harris hawks. Southern Arizona is the northern limit of their range. They're just barely making it here. In adaptive response, here, they hunt cooperatively like wolves, in "packs" of four to six; they don't do this through most of Mexico. Only the alpha female nests, and she doesn't let the others near it. So if nest is here, the pack is over there.

So: this morning, =there= was a telephone pole a block and a half away. Three of them, one working on devowering a scrap of something furry (probably a bunny). I noticed them because of the mockingbird.

Mocker was scolding: kawk! on a rising scale, very like a jay scold. And attacking them — well, one hawk at a time, but all of them in turn — using its acrobatic flying to swoop behind and peck between the wings, hard enough to make the victim flinch. These were two-foot-long raptors and this a smaller mockingbird than what you saw, Teresa, but it was making them uncomfortable. I watched for three minutes, until the three flew somewhere else with the air of "I meant to be leaving anyway."

Mockingbird are excellent fliers. My theory is that this lets them be the most pugnacious birds around — with the exception of the only birds that fly even better: hummingbirds.


ps. Sorry, Lori, no ideas. They are under biological imperative.

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