Northern Mockingbird

Mimus polyglottos

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Photo of a northern mockingbird perched on sumac branch with snow falling.
The northern mockingbird can sing endlessly, night and day, repeating phrases from the songs of other birds. Its white wing patches are conspicuous in flight.
Jim Rathert
Family

Mimidae (mimids or “mimic thrushes”) in the order Passeriformes

Description

Adult upperparts are gray, with two white wing bars and a white crescent at the base of the primary wing feathers. The tail is dark gray with white outer tail feathers. The white patches in the wings and tail are only obvious when seen in flight or courtship displays. Underparts are light gray. Bill is long and slightly downcurved. Young birds are gray-streaked below, like a thrasher. The song is a highly varied series of repeated notes, frequently mimicking other bird species. Each phrase is usually repeated 3–5 times before the next phrase begins. They frequently sing all night long. The call is a loud tcheck or tseek.

Similar species: The brown thrasher’s song has phrases only one or a few notes long, with each phrase repeated just 2–3 times; its call is a loud smack or stet. The gray catbird’s song is a jumble of many varied phrases, with little or no apparent repetition; its call is a moderately loud meeoow or kute.

Size

Length: 10 inches (tip of bill to tip of tail).

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Photo of a northern mockingbird perched on a branch, bill lifted.
Northern Mockingbird
Northern mockingbird upperparts are gray, with two white wing bars and a white crescent at the base of the primary wing feathers. The underparts are light gray. The bill is long and slightly downcurved.

Northern_Mockingbird_young_2-26-16.jpg

Photo of a young northern mockingbird.
Northern Mockingbird
Young northern mockingbirds are gray-streaked below, like a thrasher.

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Photo of a northern mockingbird perched in a shrub, eating red berries.
Northern Mockingbird
Northern mockingbirds are summer residents statewide. They frequent open areas with shrubs, such as gardens, parks, and landscaped yards.

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Photo of a northern mockingbird perched on a branch, head turned.
Northern Mockingbird
The famous song of the northern mockingbird is a highly varied series of repeated notes. Each phrase is usually repeated 3–5 times before the next phrase begins.

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Photo of a northern mockingbird perched on a branch eating a berry.
Northern Mockingbird
In summer, northern mockingbirds forage on a wide variety of insects, spiders, lizards, snakes, crayfish . . . and fruits.

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Photo of a northern mockingbird perched on a snowy cluster of sumac berries.
Northern Mockingbird
In winter, northern mockingbirds defend certain fruit-bearing shrubs all winter, reserving them for their own food supply.

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Photo of a mockingbird on a branch with bright sky blue background.
Northern Mockingbird
The ability to copy the songs of other birds and blend them into a lengthy song apparently arose as a way for male mockingbirds to court, bond, and coordinate reproduction with females.

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Photo of a northern mockingbird perched in a cedar.
Northern Mockingbird
The northern mockingbird is the official bird of no less than 5 states. It had been the state bird of South Carolina, too, until that state switched to the more original (and fitting) Carolina wren in 1948.

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Photo of a northern mockingbird, perched.
Northern Mockingbird
Though they all create songs by copying the phrases from other birds, it’s possible to distinguish between northern mockingbird, brown thrasher, and gray catbird just by their repeat patterns.
Habitat and conservation

Summer residents frequent open areas with shrubs, such as gardens, parks, and landscaped yards. Northern mockingbirds often walk and hop on the ground, habitually cocking their tails and opening and closing their wings. They are nimble, showy flyers, showing off their white wing patches.

Foods

In summer, northern mockingbirds forage on a wide variety of insects, spiders, lizards, snakes, crayfish, and fruits. As with most wintering fruit-eating birds, they will come to feeders stocked with fruits such as raisins and cranberries; they also appreciate mealworms. Mockingbirds defend certain fruit-bearing shrubs all winter, reserving them for their own food supply.

Distribution in Missouri

Statewide; most common in the southern half of the state.

Status

As a summer resident, common in the southern part of the state, but uncommon in the extreme north. As a winter resident, uncommon in the Ozark and Ozark Border regions, and rare in the Glaciated Plains. North American populations declined during the second half of the 20th century. In the 19th century, before bird conservation laws were passed, young mockingbirds were routinely taken from their nests or captured as adults and sold as cage birds, nearly extirpating them in some areas.

Life cycle

Cup nests are built of twigs and a variety of other materials, including trash. Clutches comprise 2–6 eggs; incubation lasts 12–13 days. Fledging occurs 12–13 days after hatching. There can be up to 3 broods a year. The ability to learn and copy the songs of other birds and blend them into a lengthy song apparently arose as a way for male mockingbirds to court, bond, and coordinate reproduction with females. Apparently it does not play a large role in male-male territorial competitions.

Human connections

The northern mockingbird is the official bird of no less than 5 states. It had been the state bird of South Carolina, too, until that state switched to the more original (not to mention fitting) Carolina wren in 1948. Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-winning novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” came out in 1960.

Ecosystem connections

Like many frugivores (fruit eaters), mockingbirds eat many insects and other animal foods in the summer, as their growing nestlings require the extra protein. Their ability to switch back and forth between insects and fruits enables them to find food during the winter, when insects are scarce.