A few years ago my wife and I were walking through a neighborhood in Lexington, Ky., when we heard a cardinal’s song coming from a nearby tree. When we turned to look we were surprised to see a Northern Mockingbird, not a cardinal. Its song was a perfect imitation of a cardinal’s song.
While we watched for a few minutes, the mockingbird would occasionally mimic the cardinal again, mixing that song into what was otherwise a jumble of seemingly random notes. But as we turned to leave we heard a blue jay calling from the tree. It was the mockingbird again, transitioning to another bird song in its repertoire.
A male mockingbird may learn around 200 songs in its lifetime, although scientists aren’t in agreement about the purpose of the mimicry. Some theorize that the mockingbird imitates other birds to make the area appear heavily populated, discouraging these birds from settling in the mockingbird's territory.
Mockingbirds often sing into the night, with mockingbird researchers determining that unmated males are the most typical nocturnal singers and nighttime singing is more common under a full moon. Mockingbirds typically sing from February through August and from September into November, with a different repertoire of songs in the spring and the fall.
I’m not a scientist. I’m just a photo hobbyist who spends a lot of time photographing birds in the wild. I’ve photographed hundreds of mockingbirds, so my curiosity about a mockingbird’s mimicry skills branches into other areas, like: Does a mockingbird make a conscious decision to mimic a specific bird ("hmmm, that sounds interesting, I think I can sing that")? And why does a mockingbird decide to use a certain mimicked call, like when the bird in Lexington switched from a cardinal call to a blue jay call?
I definitely don’t know the answers. I just know it’s fun listening to a mockingbird perform.
A male mockingbird may learn around 200 songs in its lifetime, although scientists aren’t in agreement about the purpose of the mimicry.