Every evening, just before dusk, the mockingbird would land on the roof outside of our bedroom window and sing. When he first began showing up, he only sang bird calls. He sang a variety of them, repeating each a few times, always in the same order. After visiting our roof, he would fly to the neighbor’s barn roof and do the same bird songs in the same order before flying off again. But later, he would come back to our roof and sing again…in the dark. It became common for us to wake up to the litany of bird calls that he performed right outside of our open bedroom window, sometimes at two in the morning. This went on for a few years and as he got older, the list of birds he mimicked grew. Although I did not recognize most of the bird tweets and chirps he did, there were some that were easily recognizable, like blue jay, mourning dove, crow and owl calls.
As he got older, his list of songs and noises increased. I noticed over time that his new sounds were always the last ones he did. One day, at the end of his bird calls, he made a noise like a grasshopper and then flew off. Before too long, he added the sound of a truck backing up, ending his litany with a sharp, beep-beep-beep. And one day, before he flew off, after mimicking a grasshopper, a truck backing up, a frog and a dog’s squeaky toy…he meowed.
Although he hung around long enough that I knew his calls and that he visited our neighbor’s barn roof, I had no idea just how wide his coverage area was until our neighbor’s, Jack and Wilma, had a pig roast one summer. All of the neighbors were invited and over the hours spent there that evening the conversation eventually came around to the mockingbird. The neighbors shared different stories about him, about where he perched in their yard, about the sounds he made and about how much fun he was to listen to. Everyone seemed to really enjoy him. Everyone, that is, except Jack.
Jack was a big, brash, loud man. Some people may have found him intimidating, but we neighbors knew that he was mostly talk. He’d complain about things and brag about how if he ruled the world, things would be different, but we all knew better. He was the same man who had a bright pink toilet sitting in his back yard for years. He put it there when he re-modeled his bathroom and forgot about it. I was so sick of seeing it that one day I told him that if he didn’t get rid of it soon, I’d plant geraniums in it. He laughed and told me to go ahead, but he must have gotten the message because a few weeks later the toilet was finally gone. That was the Jack we knew.
So that night as the conversation came around to the mockingbird and the incredible amount of sounds he could make, no one was surprised when Jack said, “I’m gonna shoot that damn bird! He keeps me awake all night singing right outside my window. I’m sick of it.” Immediately several neighbors warned him not to dare kill the mockingbird. Jack was big and brash, but he wasn’t stupid and he dropped his threat to shoot the mockingbird, especially when someone added that killing a mockingbird was bad luck.
The following summer my husband Steve and I were in the yard listening to the mockingbird as he sat on the neighbor’s barn roof. When he go to what we thought was the end of his regular string of sounds, he said, “Danny! Danny!” Danny was our neighbor Judy’s dog and although she was full-grown, she was still young and in training and it seemed that Judy was always calling after her. That night, as the mockingbird yelled Danny’s name, Steve and I howled with laughter as the dog ran from one side of the barn to the other looking for Judy.
Until I watched and listened to this bird for several years I had no idea that mockingbirds could make such a variety of calls and in the years since then, I’ve never seen another one that made as many. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website says that mockingbirds that have a large variety of songs and sing at night are lonely males. It’s ironic how something so lonely can bring such joy to so many.
“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” -Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
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