The mockingbird

The mockingbird is the state bird of five states—Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas—and is the former state bird of South Carolina. When I lived in Florida, I heard a story about how the mockingbird was chosen as state bird. They said that a collection of birds native to the state was gathered so citizens could judge which bird had the most beautiful song. Proponents of the nightingale were convinced at first that their bird would win, but after a week the mockingbird had become so adept at imitating the nightingale, adding its tune to its own song, that the mockingbird was declared winner of the contest.

I remember one mockingbird that lived in the same neighborhood where I lived that year. It had somehow acquired a knowledge of the (human) classics, as it included famous (human) music in its song. I remember that it sang the ten-note motif of Mozart’s Fortieth Symphony. I cannot remember the other tune it sang, but it was very familiar—perhaps the first seven notes of Beethoven’s Fur Elise.

But for all its talent, the mockingbird is still a bird-brained creature. It has no real judgment, in spite of appearances. Late last night or early this morning (I didn’t check the clock.), I heard a mockingbird going through its routine. Suddenly, in the middle of its string of beautiful calls, it included three squawks of the blue jay. Blue jays do not shout in the dark of night, nor would a blue jay fit its rancid call into a space of the mockingbird song. No, this local mockingbird had chosen to include the blue jay among its imitations, which shows how little appreciation of beauty the bird has.

I once read the following anecdote in Readers’ Digest: a state highway worker drove to a rest stop along the highway to perform needed maintenance. He parked his truck, turned off the engine, put the keys in his pocket, and left the vehicle. Suddenly he heard the sound of the truck’s back-up warning. Panicked, he turned to stop the truck; then he saw the mockingbird, perched on a tree branch above the truck, imitating the back-up alarm.

Maybe birds are not as stupid as we think they are. J.

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