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Photo Credit: Bill Horn
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Mimus polyglottos
DESCRIPTION: The northern mockingbird is a medium-sized songbird measuring about nine inches and weighing about two ounces. It has long legs, a long tail, and a slightly curved bill. The grayish-brown color, two parallel white wing bars and broad white wing patch, which are easily seen in flight, distinguish this bird from its cousins the brown thrasher and the catbird.
DISTRIBUTION: The mockingbird is a non-migrating, year-round resident of all areas of the United States, Cuba, the Bahamas, and Mexico.
HABITAT: It is commonly seen in short, grassy lawn areas, which they prefer when foraging for insects. For this reason, it is quite fond of suburban mowed lawns. It is not common in dense forest interiors but can be seen at forest edges.
FEEDING HABITS: The mockingbird is omnivorous. About half of its diet consists of arthropods, including beetles, ants, bees, wasps, and grasshoppers. It will also eat earthworms and small lizards. They are aggressive feeders that are often observed chasing down a grasshopper on a lawn, running, hopping and lunging at the prey, or flying just above the ground maneuvering behind a large wasp. The mockingbird also enjoys eating fruits, both wild and cultivated.
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: The mockingbird is monogamous, usually for the length of the breeding season, and occasionally mates for life. Some pairs have been known to stay together for eight years, their average lifespan in the wild. In the spring, mockingbirds can be seen performing their swift, acrobatic flights, males chasing females, often accompanied by the exchange of soft “hew” calls, repeatedly perching next to each other and taking off again. This behavior is believed to be used to assist the birds in sizing up the general health of the potential mate to make sure that it is of good breeding stock. Other behaviors observed include jumping from a perch, flapping wings to ascend three feet, then parachuting with open wings back down to the perch again.
Mockingbirds build and use several nests during the breeding season, laying two or three eggs in each nest. Nest building will usually start in March. Each pair will produce two to three broods per breeding season, with the female laying a total of about nine eggs. Broods frequently overlap, and the male cares for the fledglings while the female incubates the next clutch of eggs. The nests are built low to the ground in shrubs and trees, usually between three and nine feet high, mostly by the males using dead twigs lined with grasses and dead leaves and/or human artifacts such as paper, foil, plastics, and cigarette filters. Because the nest is usually very accessible, they are vulnerable to molestation, and nesting birds may abandon the eggs if disturbed during incubation. They will rarely abandon the nest once the eggs have hatched.
The eggs can be bluish gray or greenish white to darker shades of blue and green, and heavily marked with spots, blotches and short scrawls in various shades of brown. The female will usually incubate the eggs for 12 to 13 days, while the male forages for food and defends the territory from intruders. Both parents feed the hatchlings and defend the eggs and hatchlings against potential predators. When the chicks are about 12 days old, they will venture from the nest and hop around on the ground or in low shrubs. During this period, the young birds are still in the care of the parents, who feed them up to five times per hour for several days until they learn to forage for themselves.
Fiercely territorial, male mockingbirds have been known to recognize individual humans and will selectively attack them while ignoring other humans who pass by. During the two-week period that the nest is in use, it is best to avoid the area. Mockingbirds have extraordinarily diverse repertoires acquired through imitating the calls, songs and parts of songs of other birds, animals, human, mechanical sounds and even the sounds of other mockingbirds. Both sexes sing, but females much less than males. Two males in southern Florida were reported to have approximately 200 song types each. Male birds can often be heard bellowing their borrowed tunes late at night and into the wee hours of the morning, especially during a full moon.
Mockingbirds are natural pest controllers, consuming large quantities of beetles, ants, wasp, and grasshoppers. By eating a variety of berries and other fruit, they also assist plants by dispersing seeds. Their beautiful singing is an invaluable accompaniment in Alabama and throughout the Southeast.
Mazzotti, F.J. and Sprott, P. 2001. Mockingbirds. Fact Sheet SS-WIS-46. Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation; Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Foods and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL.
AUTHOR: Jeff Makemson, Wildlife Biologist, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, January 2006