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Bay Nature magazineJuly-September 2003

Do mockingbirds have their own specific song or are they mimicking other birds’ songs?

by on July 01, 2003

Northern mockingbirds, year-round residents of the Bay Area (having expanded their breeding range here after the arrival of European settlers), each develop their own songs. Similar to those of other songbirds, mockingbirds’ songs consist of a specific configuration of syllables and phrases, sung primarily to court a mate or defend a territory. However, northern mockingbird songs are different from most of the world’s other 5,600 songbirds’ in that they consist of brief imitated phrases strung together and sung repeatedly—sometimes as many as a dozen times.

The great majority of other songbirds learn and memorize their songs from a mentor, either their own father or another singing male. Mockingbirds, however, take most of their sounds from the environment, sometimes from other mockingbirds, and always including a range of other bird vocalizations. Mockingbird songs may also incorporate the vocalizations of non-avian species, such as mammals (including the pet dog!) or frogs, and even electronic sounds, like car alarms and cell phones. These sounds are learned, memorized, and incorporated into the mockingbird’s ever-expanding repertoire.

From one spring to the next, an individual male mockingbird repeats a minimum of 35 to 63 percent of his previously heard song types, while at the same time adding more songs to his delivery. As a result, his vocal repertoire eventually grows to as many as 200 at “old age” (up to eight years). This explains why your backyard mockingbird changes its vocal personality from year to year, as well as why a mocker in Oakland will sound different from one in San Rafael.

What’s the advantage of crooning so many different tunes? Most likely, sexual selection: In selecting a mate, females may use size and complexity of the male’s song repertoire to judge his overall potential “fitness.”

It’s unlikely that most listeners—human or avian—are deceived as to the true identity of the singer when hearing mimicked bird songs. That is, you can generally detect—from variations in tone and context—the difference be-tween a mockingbird mimicking an Amer-ican robin, and a robin. And so can the robin. Accordingly, few researchers believe that mockingbirds displace the mimicked birds. Rather, the mockingbird sings to establish, or defend its territory from other mockingbirds.

Northern mockingbirds may sing year-round, but they are especially vocal during courtship and in autumn (when singing is used to establish territories for the coming winter). The next time you hear a mockingbird sing, stop and see if you can pick out the phrases and guess where they came from.

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Brittany on May 31st, 2013 at 3:29 pm

We have a mockingbird living in our cherry tree. My husband whistled to it, and now it has incorporated the whistle into it’s song. So cool!

Dan Rademacher on May 31st, 2013 at 3:31 pm

That is awesome!

Lindaslookout on July 14th, 2014 at 12:39 am

In Hershey PA I followed 50 tunes and lost count. In Los Angeles I have managed to concentrate up to 64 and then felt unsure if they were repeats or not. The songs are glorious except when they are mimicking squirrels or crows. They carry on all night and any season.

Babbi on October 1st, 2014 at 3:43 am

We have a mocking bird that stays in our Red Tips. Everyday it sings a beautiful melody. I could not start my day without its song!

Bernard Aber on November 16th, 2014 at 10:42 am

Live inPinellas Park, Fl. Have a barr.led type tile roof. There are 2 mo cking birds under my roof. Have no idea how they got in there.No openings anywhere. Everyday between 11a.m. & 1p.m. they are singing
their hearts out and quit for the day.Does anyone have ideas of how to entice them out.

Donny on April 20th, 2015 at 10:05 am

There is mocking bird on the chimney top who’s clock is off. He sings also at night. I think he is still singing because no one responded to his song. “It’s too late my little bird she ain’t coming” I guess everyone can’t stand the repetition of a car alarm. It is unbelievable that the bird memorized the entire car alarm repetition but geez really night time in the window everyday and every night. I tried talking to this little guy the other day. For some reason I felt like if I could whistle to him he would change his song or sing something else. He is in hard denial and refuses to change his tune. A great example of a male! Haha

Tears on May 28th, 2015 at 9:17 am

Nothern mokingbirds are floridas state bird it is in my state report im doing

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