Saturday, June 4, 2011

Let's Hear Who's Talking (Eavesdropping on Birds)

Wen Zhengming (1470-1559), Detail from "Gathering of personages at Huishan", painting of the garden at Huishan, Wuxi, Ming Dynasty.   Collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing

"Let's hear who's talking".  

          Caroline said that to me early yesterday evening on our terrace when we were having a drink and winding down from the rigors and depredations of the day and week.

          Apart from the continuing onslaught of bad news from around the world (bad financial news in the US followed by reactions varying from stony official silence to Tower of Babel non-official cacophony and continuing bad international news that can best be summed up in the phrase "war and rumors of war"), it wasn't a totally bad week.  Jane's 4/5 of the way through finals and feels pretty good about her performance so far and her last English paper (concerning the qualities of a hero) was well-received and achieved a good grade. 

          And we were able to squeeze in a couple of hours at the Devon Horse Show yesterday, which was terrific.  We never plan our visits around specific events, so we never know what we'll be seeing.  (It's a bit like arriving at Chinatown dim sum restaurants; it's impossible to predict what items will be in the serving carts ahead of time, but it's always good and this adds to the enjoyment.)  Yesterday was mostly decorative stepping horses and equally decorative riders (one of whom may just be an extra-terrestrial being; I need to examine his ears more closely) and there's a small possibility that I may win a Jaguar or a Range Rover tonight when the Bryn Mawr Hospital Raffle is drawn.

          So we settled down and listened to the birds, who along with the bats now, are our regular evening companions.  Last night, it was chiefly our mocking bird and a couple of cardinals and it was wonderful to hear them expounding or conversing.  It seems very odd to me now how little attention I used to pay to the birds considering how absolutely remarkable they all are: extraordinarily beautiful, capable of flight and articulate.  I'm semi-articulate at best and we'll leave the rest alone, possibly for later consideration or simply remorse.

         Some information about and pictures of mocking birds and cardinals is included below, as well as two links to youtube clips of these birds in song.

Northern Mocking Bird (Mimus polyglottos)

The Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos, is the only mockingbird commonly found in North America. This species was first described by Linnaeus in his Systema naturae in 1758 as Turdus polyglottos. The Northern Mockingbird breeds in southeastern Canada, the United States, northern Mexico, the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands and the Greater Antilles. It is replaced further south by its closest living relative, the Tropical Mockingbird. The Socorro Mockingbird, an endangered species, is also closely related, contrary to previous opinion. The bird is the state bird of Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.This bird is mainly a permanent resident, but northern birds may move south during harsh weather. This species has occurred in Europe as an extreme rarity.

          Mockingbirds have a strong preference for certain trees such as maple, sweetgum, and sycamore. They generally avoid pine trees after the other trees have grown their leaves. Also, they have a particular preference for high places, such as the topmost branches of trees. Mockingbirds are often found in urban and suburban areas, where they perch on telephone poles, streetlights, or high points on buildings. While singing on a high perch they will often bolt several feet into the air in a looping motion, with wings outstretched to display their white underside, then land back on the perch without breaking a note. This has been studied and thought to be a courtship display.

Mocking Bird by John James Audobon. (From Birds of America, 1827-39)

          Although many species of bird imitate other birds, the Northern Mockingbird is the best known in North America for doing so. It imitates not only birds but also other animals and mechanical sounds such as car alarms. As convincing as these imitations may be to humans, they often fail to fool other birds, such as the Florida Scrub-Jay.

     The Northern Mockingbird's mimicry is likely to serve as a tool for increasing the size of its repertoire and thus its ability to attract females. The mockingbird is limited to imitating short units of sound, which it repeats several times before moving on to a new sound. As a result, the mockingbird sounds much better (to a human ear) imitating some species than others. Species with repetitive songs, such as the Carolina Wren, are effectively copied, but species with long, complex songs, such as the Song Sparrow, cannot be effectively imitated by the mockingbird.

          Northern Mockingbirds, in addition to being good mimics, are also some of the loudest and most constantly vocal of birds. They often sing through the night or when the moon is full. This is especially true of those bachelor males that are trying to attract a female. They sing year-round except sometimes for the late-summer molting season. Individual males have repertoires of 50 to 200 songs; females sing as well, but more quietly and less often than males. Mockingbirds usually sing the loudest in the twilight of the early morning when the sun is on the horizon.

Northern Mocking Bird in "Display"; Photographed in Lansdale, Pennsylvania.  (Lansdale is quite close to our house in Berwyn.)  

          In addition to its well-known song, the Northern Mockingbird uses a variety of calls to communicate specific information. As with its song, these calls are among some of the louder sounds produced by birds of its size. Mockingbirds make a harsh, raspy noise when chasing other birds out of their territory. A similar but distinct call is used when defending against predators like a hawk or falcon. Other calls include a wheezing noise, a "chuck" note, and a very piercing series of notes "high low" repeated twice.

          In 2009, mockingbirds were reportedly able to pick out a threatening person from a crowd. Researchers had one person stand near a mockingbird nest and touch it, while other people avoided the nest. Later, the mockingbirds recognized the intruder and attacked him, while ignoring the other people.

Northern Cardinal (Male), Columbus, Ohio

The Northern Cardinal or Redbird or Common Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is a North American bird in the genus Cardinalis. It can be found in southern Canada, through the eastern United States from Maine to Texas and south through Mexico. It can also be found on the Big Island of Hawaii and on Oahu. It is found in woodlands, gardens, shrublands, and swamps.

          The Northern Cardinal is a mid-sized songbird with a body length of 21 centimeters. It has a distinctive crest on the head and a mask on the face which is black in the male and gray in the female. The male is a vibrant red, while the female is a dull red-brown shade. The Northern Cardinal is mainly granivorous, but also feeds on insects and fruit. The male behaves territorially, marking out his territory with song. During courtship, the male feeds seed to the female beak-to-beak. A clutch of three to four eggs is laid, and two to four clutches are produced each year. It was once prized as a pet, but its sale as cage birds is now banned in the United States by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

           The Northern Cardinal is a mid-sized songbird with a body length of 20–23 cm (7.9–9.1 in) and a wingspan of 25–31 cm (9.8–12 in). It weighs about 45 g (1.6 oz).  The male is a brilliant crimson red with a black face mask over the eyes, extending to the upper chest. The color is dullest on the back and wings. The female is fawn, with mostly grayish-brown tones and a slight reddish tint on the wings, the crest, and the tail feathers. The face mask of the female is gray to black and is less defined than that of the male. Both sexes possess prominent raised crests and bright coral-colored beaks. The beak is cone-shaped and strong. Young birds, both male and female, show the coloring similar to the adult female until the fall, when they molt and grow adult feathers.They are brown above and red-brown below, with brick-colored crest, forehead, wings, and tail. The legs and feet are a dark pink-brown. The iris of the eye is brown. The plumage color of the males is produced from carotenoid pigments in the diet. Coloration is produced from both red pigments and yellow carotenoid pigments. Northern Cardinal males possess the ability to metabolize carotenoid pigments to create plumage pigmentation of a different color than the ingested pigment. When fed only yellow pigments, males become a pale red color, rather than a yellow.

Northern Cardinal (Female)

          The Northern Cardinal is found in residential areas throughout its range. Backyard birders attract it using feeders containing seeds, particularly sunflower seeds and safflower seeds. Although some controversy surrounds bird feeding (see bird feeder for details), an increase in backyard feeding by humans has generally been beneficial to this species. It is listed as a species of Least Concern by the IUCN Red List. It has an estimated global range of 5,800,000 square kilometers (2,239,392.5 sq mi) and a global population estimated to be about 100,000,000 individuals. Populations appear to remain stable and it has not reached the threshold of inclusion as a threatened species, which requires a decline of more than 30 percent in ten years or three generations. It was once prized as a pet due to its bright color and distinctive song.  In the United States, this species receives special legal protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which also banned their sale as cage birds. It is also protected by the Convention for the Protection of Migratory Birds in Canada. It is illegal to take, kill, or possess Northern Cardinals, and violation of the law is punishable by a fine of up to 15,000 US dollars and imprisonment of up to six months.

          In the United States, the Northern Cardinal is the mascot of a number of athletic teams. In professional sports, it is the mascot of the St. Louis Cardinals of Major League Baseball and the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League. In college athletics, it is the mascot of many schools, including the University of Louisville, the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, Ball State University, Illinois State University, Lamar University, the Catholic University of America, Wesleyan University, Wheeling Jesuit University, Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, North Idaho College and Saint John Fisher College. It is also the state bird of seven states, more than any other species: North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and Virginia. It was also a candidate to become the state bird of Delaware, but lost to the Blue Hen of Delaware.

Cardinal by John James Audobon, 1808

Reader Notes:

[1]  Northern Mocking Bird singing

[2]  Cardinal singing

[3]  For more on the Mocking Bird, please see Here.

[4]  Click on each of the images to see beautiful Enlargments.


  1. such a beautifully traveling post- the birds tell me something every morning noon and night-along with the same species you harbor-I have the pleasure of a number of morning doves. fully expecting your win on the Jaguar-or RR if you prefer.

  2. Thanks so much for picking up and reflecting back our mood. After a long drive back from the Hudson Valley today, I'm about to adjourn to the same terrace for what I expect will be the same cocktail (and the same bird chorus). Please meet our mourning dove: