Monday, May 25, 2015

Birdlore: Northern Mockingbird: The Best Singer of Them All

On a warm spring afternoon, you may find yourself relaxing on the porch or listening to the chitter- chatter of songbirds bobbing and weaving through the yard.  Listening, you hear the song of what seems like a dozen different bird species singing.  You decide to glance about to locate the gathering chorus, but all those songbirds are nowhere to be seen.

Except for a single, slender-bodied, grey songbird perched boldly high up in a bush, bursting proudly with song.

A Northern Mockingbird. in its typically subdued colors (photo: wikipedia)
 The Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) is renowned for its ability to mimic the songs of other songbirds, cats, dogs, frogs, and even human-made objects.  Their songs are made of a long series of phrases, usually repeated several times, and lasting upwards of half a minute.  The mockingbird, male and female, sings continuously throughout the day and even into the night.  Unmated males will sing longer and louder than mated males in the daytime.  A mockingbird will continue to add new songs and sounds to its repertoire throughout its lifespan.

The Mayans tell a story of how a young mockingbird named, X-chol-col-chek, was poor and could only dress in shabby feathers.  However, X-chol-col-chek had been blessed with a beautiful voice since the day she hatched, but couldn’t afford singing lessons. 

X-chol-col-chek found work with a rich cardinal family, when a famous singing professor, a blackbird, arrived to the Maya land one season.  The father cardinal asked the blackbird to teach his lazy daughter, Col-pol-che, to become a skilled singer.

Col-pol-che and the blackbird would head off into a quiet part of the forest for many weeks for lessons and X-col would follow in secret to watch.  However, over time, the blackbird came to realize that Col-pol-che had neither the skill nor the motivation to become a singer.  Afraid to tell the cardinal father of his daughter’s progress after much time and accepting a great deal of money, the blackbird simply flew away to forget the matter.

All the while, X-col-col-chek practiced the lessons she had watched, until one day Col-pol-che stumbled upon her practice in surprise.  At the same time, the proud father cardinal arranged for his daughter to perform before all their friends and family.  Lazy Col-pol-che was terrified and too afraid to tell her father she couldn’t sing. Instead, she turned to X-chol-col-chek for help.

The two birds recruited a woodpecker to drill a hole in the tree just below where Col-pol-che would perch for her concert.  Col-pol-che would pretend to sing, while X-chol-col-chek hid in the hole and provided the real voice. 

The time of the concert had finally arrived.  All the nobles, artists, singers, and musicians had gathered while Col-pol-che rose to her perch.  Col-pol-che opened her beak and the most enchanting voice to ever be heard in the Maya land spread throughout the whole forest.    The audience flapped and praised the beautiful voice, however, the father cardinal was not applauding.

He had seen X-chol-col-chek climb into the hole shortly before the concert.  When the audience finally settled down, the father cardinal joined his daughter on the perch and demanded silence.  Leaning towards the hole, he called the little mockingbird out.

Shaking with fright, the small, gray mockingbird came out, only to have the father cardinal gently guide her to the perch with him and his daughter.  Explaining to the audience that his daughter had tricked them and himself, he explained that it was really, “this shy little ‘nightingale’ singing the whole time.”

In a great roar of excitement, the audience cried for X-chol-col-chek to sing again.  Feeling more confident, the mockingbird sang with a full spirit and won the heart of every bird.  From then on, her children and her children’s children would inherit her lovely voice, but the cardinals never learned how to sing as well.

The Mayan legend teaches that we should use the abilities we are born with, to be confident and bold in ourselves, and to never stop pursuing our dreams.

You may see one of these amazing singers at one of the WBS feeders (photo: Gay Schroer)

The next time you visit the World Bird Sanctuary keep your ears tuned for the exuberant song of the Mockingbird.  You may see one at one of our feeders--or--you may have one of these joyful little singers in your own yard.  Just take the time to listen.

Submitted by Jessica Bunke, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist/Trainer

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