Birding Column: Northern Mockingbird Is a Wary Neighbor

Mathew Tekulsky
The Birdman of Bel Air
December 9, 2003

The northern mockingbird is a funny fellow. He never comes down to the platform feeder for mixed birdseed, contenting himself with eating insects, fruits, and berries from around the neighborhood. And yet, he spends many hours each day in my yard, and he has even nested here.

I did manage to attract him once with raisins, but his interest in the feeder was so sporadic that I gave up on trying to attract him to the yard and I settle now for whatever company he wants to give me.

As I say, the mockingbird is a funny fellow. He seems to enjoy perching in a nearby avocado tree and watching the scrub jays as they make their visits to the platform feeder—and he's a great mimic of the scrub jay's call, an upwardly rising screech.

He's also very good at imitating the Phainopepla, a beautiful, black bird (the female is gray) that visits my yard each June and July, after it comes down from the mountains to raise a second brood. (The Phainopepla's call is a soft oo-wup, rising slightly in tone.)

The mockingbird makes no sound when it flies, but you can see its white wing patches and the white of its outer tail feathers quite clearly against the gray and black of the rest of its body (except the breast, which is whitish.)

Now, the mockingbird is a very feisty fellow, especially when defending his territory. I have seen a mockingbird chase a red-tailed hawk down into a neighboring canyon for a mile or so. I can't hear him from so high up and so far away, but I'll bet he's uttering his ugly, grating, buzzing call, which does indeed sound a bit like a high-pitched door buzzer. He does this with his beak wide open, and as he is emitting this sound from his throat, it has a guttural tone to it as well.

It really is quite alarming to hear this sound, and I got a good dose of it one spring, when a pair of mockingbirds built a nest in the jasmine bushes that line the side of my house. In fact, they actually built three nests that year, finally settling on one in which to raise their family, which eventually consisted of just one fledgling.

The first nest that the mockingbirds built was good enough to house two eggs, but the eggs disappeared and the mockingbirds set to work building a second nest around the corner from the first nest but in the same jasmine bush. This time, however, the female didn't lay any eggs in this nest, but the birds built another nest right above it! The lower nest was a decoy, and it served the female well as she managed to raise one chick in that nest and was successful in having it fledge unharmed.

I saw the little, scrawny thing fly off from the nest on its maiden voyage, and it was really quite a sight to see. The chick landed in an oak tree on the other side of the pool, and it just sat there, squealing/shrieking in a high-pitched, guttural tone for one of its parents to bring it a meal. Only the approach of the parent with a cricket, spider, or some other arthropod would convince the chick to quiet down.

During the entire nest-building, incubating, and fledging period, the male mockingbird positioned himself at various outposts around the pool area, and when I ventured out onto the patio, he'd buzz me by flying directly for my head and then veering off to the left or right side of my face.

I tried to play chicken with him a couple of times, imagining his beak lodged in one of my eyes or in my cheek, but the mockingbird always won. Perhaps it was that frightening, buzzing sound he made in flight, but I always turned my head at the last second and raised my hands to protect my face.

Funnily enough, although the mockingbird is around all the time, he rarely lets you get close enough to get a good photograph of him. For such a social bird, he's extremely wary—not as wary as the hooded oriole, but close.

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