Northern Mockingbird

Mimus polyglottos

Northern Mockingbird
Photo © Captain-tucker/Flickr/CC by-SA 2.0

The northern mockingbird is a relatively unremarkable bird to look at but a spectacular one to listen to. With its amazing ability to mimic other bird songs and sounds, its scientific name polyglottos – “many-tongued” –is very apt. As the state bird of Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas, this bird is widespread and well known, but how much do you really know about it?

Common Name: Northern Mockingbird, Mockingbird

Scientific Name: Mimus polyglottos

Scientific Family: Mimidae

Appearance

  • Bill: Short, dark, stout
  • Size: 10 inches long with 14-15-inch wingspan, long tail, and legs
  • Colors: Gray, black, white
  • Markings: Male and female birds look alike with a medium gray head and back, darker wings with two thin white bars and bold white patches that are better visible in flight. The tail is dark gray or black with white outer feathers and the chest and abdomen are white or grayish-white. Birds have a faint black stripe along the lores from the bill to the eye. In flight, the white outer tail feathers and white wing patches flash noticeably. The eyes are yellow-brown and the legs and feet are black or dark black-gray.
    Juvenile birds look similar to adults but may have a scruffier appearance, and very young northern mockingbirds show gray spotting on the breast and flanks.

Foods: Insects, worms, fruit, berries, small animals, snakes, lizards, sap (See: Omnivorous)

Habitat and Migration

Northern mockingbirds are called “northern” because most mockingbird species reside in the tropics. This species is highly adaptable and can be found in farmland, suburban areas, forests, and towns as far north as Massachusetts and Connecticut to Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona and along coastal California. They prefer relatively dense thickets and scrub-like areas, including riparian corridors, overgrown fields, woodland edges and similar habitats, particularly where thorny plants are abundant. The northern mockingbird’s territory is gradually expanding further north as food sources expand. These birds are generally year-round residents of their range, but extreme northern populations can migrate seasonally, particularly during harsh winters.

Vocalizations

The northern mockingbird’s voice is its most distinctive characteristic. Not only does the bird have its own unique warbles, buzzes, and chirps, but studies have found mockingbirds to mimic the calls and songs of at least 50 other birds as well as other animals, machinery, and music. Calls are generally repeated 3-5 times before changing, and the complexity and variety of one bird’s calls indicate its maturity and experience. With such a repertoire, it is not unusual for these birds to sing throughout the night, particularly in bright moonlight, as well as during the day.

Behavior

These birds are generally found alone or in pairs, but they will boldly perch in open areas or forest fringes to sing. They frequently run and hop to forage for insects on the ground and may snap or raise their wings up quickly to startle their prey. Northern mockingbirds are very defensive of their nests and will dive, flash their wings or otherwise use threat postures to intimidate intruders. Mockingbirds have even been recorded as mobbing and diving at humans who venture to close to nesting areas.

Reproduction

These are monogamous birds that form long-term pair bonds and may even mate for life. Cup-shaped nests are constructed of twigs and lined with finer grasses. Nests are positioned 3-10 feet above the ground, often in a thorny bush or dense thicket.

Northern mockingbird eggs are buff or tan-colored and liberally sprinkled with darker brown or tan spotting. The female bird will incubate a brood of 3-6 eggs for 12-13 days, and both parents will feed the nestlings for 11-13 days. Pairs can raise 2-3 broods per year, and juvenile birds often remain with their family group even while a new brood is being cared for.

Attracting Northern Mockingbirds

Northern mockingbirds readily visit backyard feeders where bread scraps, suet, peanut butter, apples, and raisins are available. To make the habitat even more attractive and invite the birds to sing, birders should leave brush and trees unpruned to provide ample perching areas. Providing berry bushes for birds and suitable open space for foraging will make a yard even more attractive to mockingbirds.

Conservation

In the 1800s, mockingbirds were often poached and sold as pets and cage birds. Today, that practice has ended and while northern mockingbirds are not considered threatened or endangered, they suffer from several risks, particularly in urban and suburban areas. Because they often forage on the ground, feral cats and outdoor pets can be a great problem, and the overuse of pesticides and insecticides can eliminate their food supplies. Minimizing these artificial threats can be very helpful for preserving northern mockingbirds.

Similar Birds

  • Townsend’s Solitaire (Myadestes townsendi)
  • Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis)
  • Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus)
  • Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea)
  • Sage Thrasher (Oreoscoptes montanus)
  • Bahama Mockingbird (Mimus gundlachii)
  • Tropical Mockingbird (Mimus gilvus)