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Mockingbird: a joyous noise
By George A. Ricker

The concert usually begins around dawn and may last for two hours, sometimes even longer. It’s a solo performance by a virtuoso and never ceases to bring a smile to my face. Sometimes, lying in bed, debating whether or not to leave my own warm nest, I catch myself wondering what it’s all about, that concert. This somewhat fanciful rumination is the result.

As some of you already know, I live in Florida and have done so for most of my life. Mockingbirds are ubiquitous here and are, in fact, the state bird. Consequently, I have heard and observed many of them over the years. Before I turn my attention to the specific bird—or, more likely, family of birds—that prompts this essay, here are a few general facts for those who are unfamiliar with the species.

The northern mockingbird or mimus polyglottus is a medium-sized songbird with a long tail. It has a coat that is pale gray on top and whitish below. It has white bars on its wings and white outer tail feathers. Some birds have darker gray markings on their wings as well. When in flight, large white patches can be seen on its wings. The bird is eight to ten inches long with a wingspan of from 12 to 14 inches and usually weighs about two ounces. The sexes look alike and the species ranges throughout the lower 48 states of the United States, as well as southern Canada, parts of Central America and the islands of the Caribbean.

Mockingbirds are so named because they are consummate mimics. The typical mockingbird’s song is made up of snippets of other bird songs, strung together in all sorts of interesting ways. As they get older, the birds’ repertoires increase. Both male and female mockingbirds sing, although the males are, not surprisingly, the louder of the two. Mockingbirds are fiercely protective of their young when nesting. I have seen pairs of mockingbirds chase dogs, cats and humans away from their nests with dive-bombing attacks that involved considerable aerobatic skill and an utter disregard for their own safety.

My wife Judy and I moved into our current home almost 24 years ago. In early spring of our first year in our new (to us) home, I noticed something unusual. The sun was just beginning to make its presence known on the eastern horizon, and I was walking down the driveway to get the morning paper when I heard a bird singing with remarkable volume. After listening for a bit, I realized it was a mockingbird. Looking around, I spotted the enthusiastic warbler perched atop a light pole in my front yard, serenading the neighborhood.

I should pause to explain that my neighborhood has always been bird friendly. There are lots of trees (more then than now but still quite a few) and shrubs for nests and nesting material. It’s a relatively sedate suburban area without too much hustle and bustle. Most of my neighbors seem to enjoy having birds around, and some have their yards decorated with bird houses, feeding stations and the like. In the time we have lived here, my back yard has been visited by countless species including mockingbirds, blue jays, crows, cardinals, robins, quail, peacocks (we have a sizable colony that troops through the neighborhood, making daily rounds), at least two hawks, woodpeckers and more.

As a consequence, most mornings there is a cacophony of chirps, squawks, trills, whistles and all the other noises birds make. It makes for a pleasant backdrop. But once that one mockingbird starts tuning up, the others fall away. I don’t know whether he simply drowns them out or the other birds defer. All I know is that sometimes it seems a hush of expectation falls over the neighborhood as if the world outside is awaiting the performance in the soft light of morning.

One morning, not too long after we had moved into this house, an old and dear friend, who has since passed away, came grumbling out of the guest bedroom, snatched up a cup of coffee and joined me on the back porch, where I was reading my morning paper and drinking coffee.

“You’re up early,” I remarked.

“You’ve got some loud birds around here,” he replied grumpily.

So we do. And so we have for all the time we have lived here. Obviously, it’s not the same bird. Mockingbirds have an average life span of about eight years. So we’ve most likely been serenaded by a succession of birds, spanning generations. Maybe, it’s a family of birds, all scions of a noble line, who were gifted in the genetic lottery with unusually robust systems for vocalizing. Whatever the circumstances may be, I’m grateful for the result.

Now I’m sure there are evolutionary reasons for the songs of birds. They are used to find mates, to mark territory, to warn of nearby predators or potential danger, to locate one another and so on. Some or all of those factors undoubtedly play into the song of this particular mockingbird, or family of mockingbirds. I also know it’s a mistake to romanticize nature. Animals do most of what they do most of the time because they have been programmed by evolution and their own biological nature to act that way.

But I can’t help wondering whether this particular mockingbird has something else going on. Do you suppose it enjoys singing its songs? It certainly seems enthusiastic, almost exuberant, when it sings. Over the years I have been listening, I have heard the pure, undistilled joy of simply being alive in that avian serenade and have felt myself responding in kind. So does the world outside feed the spirit within.

And before anyone accuses me of saying more than I mean to say, this is not a segue into some metaphysical rathole. All animals feel pleasure and pain. All animals tend to seek that which gives them pleasure and avoid that which gives them pain. Birds are no different. So there’s no reason to assume birds may not feel pleasure in their singing and, consequently, take enjoyment from it, after a fashion. Perhaps, evolution has programmed birds to enjoy singing because of its connection to other behaviors that are essential to their survival.

Whatever the case, this mockingbird certainly seems to enjoy singing, and it pleases me to think that such a mighty singer pleases itself as it entertains me and the others who hear it. The concert happens most mornings in spring and summer.

I repeat, I draw no metaphysical conclusions from the experience of the mockingbird’s song. None are needed. It is a moment of joy that needs no further explanation and requires no greater context than life itself. When I speak of such moments feeding the spirit within, I refer to no supernatural agent, but only to my own humanity and a sense of life that always has room for such moments of transcendent exhilaration.

Each of us seeks our own voice, our own song in life. Here’s hoping you find yours, dear reader, and like the mockingbird, sing it with great enthusiasm.

Make a joyous noise to life itself.

© 2007 by George A. Ricker

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