By Chas Moore
Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service
Have you ever been awakened in the middle of the night to the shrill cry of a bird that has obviously lost its ability to tell day from night? If so, chances are you were plagued by a mockingbird.
The northern mockingbird is a medium-sized songbird about the size of a robin but slimmer. It is medium gray on the top, with lighter gray to whitish underneath. The wings and tail are a darker shade of gray with patches of white, which are visible when the bird is in flight.
Mockingbirds are in the family Mimidae, which means mimic or imitator. They often are called mimic thrushes and have been referred to as the American Nightingale because of their melodious songs and amazing ability to duplicate other bird’s songs as well as human noises.
Mockingbirds have been recorded singing the songs of at least 40 other birds as well as noises such as creaking doors, barking dogs, people whistling, croaking frogs, doorbells, cell phones, police sirens and car alarms, just to name a few. Each phrase of the song is repeated several times before moving on to the next song.
The male mockingbird does most of the singing in hopes of attracting a mate. Females sometime sing, but are not nearly as elaborate or persistent as the males. Mockingbirds expand their song vocabulary throughout their lives, whereas most other birds only sing one or two phrases from the time they leave the nest.
All male mockingbirds sing during the day; however, unmated males sing during the night, especially around the full moon or in lighted areas.
This late night singing is a courtship song beginning in late spring or early summer and usually lasts two to three weeks or until the bird finds a mate. This singing stops once courtship and nesting begins.
Mockingbirds generally raise two broods during the season, so a second round of night singing may begin in mid summer.
If you are a light sleeper, this late night singing may become quite a nuisance. Unfortunately, there is not much you can do to stop it other than just be patient and hope the bird soon finds a mate. They usually cannot be chased away, either, because once the singing starts, the mockingbird has already established his territory, which is usually the shade tree outside your bedroom window.
It is illegal to kill mockingbirds, because they are protected by federal law under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, as well as by state law. It is also illegal to destroy, relocate, or possess birds, their nests or their eggs.
If nighttime singing is a problem, make sure all windows are closed or try turning on a fan or playing soft music to help drown out the noise. If this does not work, try sleeping with ear plugs or sleep in another room in the house. However, the best advice is to simply appreciate the sounds of nature’s romance. There are worse things to lose sleep over.
-- By Chas Moore, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries