( Originally Published Ealry 1900's )
WHAT the nightingale is to Southern Europe the mocking bird is to the Southern States, the most wonderful song bird of the country and the universal favorite of the people. His reputation as a musician is world wide. Whoever hears his song is deeply impressed, and wherever the story of the birds is told, the power of the mocking bird's voice is recalled. He is one of the first in the spring to sing; indeed, I have heard him near the northern border of his range, singing with great force on a clear February morning when ice covered the trees as a garment.
In those States which border on the Gulf of Mexico the mocking birds are in full song by March first. In that semi-tropical climate they abound, and in many sections are the most abundant species. I have sometimes thought that they must be conscious of the power of their numbers from the bold, defiant manner in which the music will often come from a dozen or more throats within hearing at one time, drowning in its volume the notes of all other denizens of the fields and shrubbery. The bird revels in the glory of his vocal strength, and shouts his ringing challenge to the trees, the flowers, the very sky itself.
Watch the mocking bird some spring morning as with ruffled feathers and drooping wings he sits on the top-most bough of a neighboring tree and pours out the beautiful story of his love. At times the very intensity of the music within his breast lifts him many feet into the air. With dangling legs and carelessly flopping wings he drops again to his perch, singing the while. Anon he descends to the earth for a moment, a few rapid hops in the grass and he bounds again into the air with scarcely an intermission in his song. Music high and low, loud and soft, hilarious and sad, with never a hesitation, never a false note, is what falls to your ears as you hearken to this wonderful, masterful fellow, the music-prince of the southern highways and groves.
However, it is at night that the mocking bird is at his best. If he is the music-prince of the grove by day, he is the song-king of the lawn by night. When all the world is hushed save the faint murmur of distant pines, and the gentle gales are freighted with the odor of orange blossoms, the song of the mocking bird, softened by the mellow moonlight, floats to one's ears as a message of exquisite loveliness, like the sound of a be-loved voice from the silent past.
Besides his native song, the mocking bird has the wonderful power of acquiring by practice the notes of many of the feathered forms he is accustomed to hear. He imitates the songs of the robin and wood thrush, the blue-bird and the wren. With wonderful distinctness he will give the clear whistle of the cardinal grosbeak. In regions where the little sparrow hawk is a common resident many mockers can reproduce its cry so perfectly as to deceive the most trained ear. Not all mocking birds have equal power of imitation. The gift of mocking in different individuals seems to vary quite as much as the range of their natural song. An observer in South Carolina speaks of hearing one mimic the notes of no less than thirty-two birds during an interval of ten minutes.
The nest of the mocking bird is variously situated, in small trees, brush heaps, briers, in the corners of rail fences, in the decayed trunks of trees, on stumps, in piles of cord wood, and at times in vines growing about the doors and verandas of our houses. Once I found a nest between the wall and the stick-and-clay chimney of a ruined negro cabin. The nesting material consists of twigs, plant stems, dry grasses, pieces of paper, strings, strips of hark, feathers, rags or other suitable articles which can easily be secured. The structure is generally lined with rootlets. The distance at which the nest is placed above the ground varies from three to ten feet. Rarely one may be seen elevated fifty feet in the air on the bough of a large tree.
The eggs have a pale greenish blue ground-color and are covered quite uniformly with reddish brown spots. Four is the number generally laid in a nest, sometimes five, and rarely six. The one profession of the male in the spring is singing, and so completely does this engross his mind that to his mate is left the entire responsibility of constructing their habitation and hatching the eggs. May is the principal month for nesting, although I have seen mocking birds incubating their eggs as far north as Ocracoke Inlet by April tenth. In the southern part of its range two broods are reared in a season.
While engaged in incubation or caring for the young, the nest is guarded with the utmost care. The parents will not hesitate to attack any enemy, real or imaginary, which may approach their domain, be it crow, or dog, or man. If they do not actually assail they will at least approach near and scold soundly. Their cry of alarm at once warns other birds in the vicinity of approaching danger. If the intruder be a hawk the cry is taken up and passed from garden to garden by these self-appointed sentinels, and the evil news of its approach is heralded faster than the winged desperado can fly.
If a mocking bird's nest be destroyed the mother bird will, within a few days, begin building a new one. If an accident likewise befalls this, still another will be built. A pair once made their nest among the rails of a fence near my home. The owner of the fence soon afterward, while making some repairs about the lot, accidently tore the nest from its position and the eggs were broken. The bird then built in a small oak tree near by, but an animal in the pasture rubbed the tree down and the birds were again without a home.
In their search for a more secure position the distressed mockers sought the protection of a large orange tree, and, on a horizontal limb ten feet from the ground, built a nest. Here more trouble awaited them, for a cat climbed the tree, despite the thorns, and ate the young in the nest. If the poor birds were discouraged by this series of disasters they did not show it by their actions. A week after this last catastrophe I saw the female carrying twigs in among the dagger shaped leaves of a Spanish bayonet plant. Here at last she found a sure re-treat and reared her young in safety, free alike from the intrusions of man, and ox, and cat.
If kindly treated this bird will ofttimes become very trustful, and if you are so fortunate as to have trees and shrubbery about your house, he will perch in your door-way and even hop about your room. I knew one which often did this until one day a heavy hand was laid upon him and he was placed in a cage. But the moment he was imprisoned his tameness vanished. He refused all food and dashed wildly against the cruel bars. And O, how long and untiringly he sought his freedom !
Outside he could hear the buzzing of a humming bird's wings among the woodbine on the veranda trellis. He heard, too, the twitter of swifts as they circled and darted about the sky, and again and again the songs and calls of his fellows reached his ears, as they chased each other about the grove in their mimic combats. In his efforts to escape he drove his bill continually between the bars of the cage, until his head was bleeding from many bruises. At times he called loudly for help, and was never content a moment until his wings bore him once more into the bright sunshine, for like most wild creatures that have grown to maturity in the free air, he could never be taught to live in captivity.
A friend of mine once picked up a young mocking bird which had been injured and kindly cared for it. She placed it in a cage and fed it for a time with ripe berries and a mixture of boiled egg and potato. Later when it was able to fly it was given its liberty. Instead of leaving, it followed her about the house, hopping and flying along the floor. It would light on her arm and feed from her hand. If she was out of its sight for an hour it would become uneasy, and entering the house by door or window, would seek her from room to room, chirping loudly in distressed tones. For many weeks the bird remained about the house and lawn, and would come when called by his mistress.
Unfortunately for their preservation, mocking birds when taken while young will, with proper care, thrive in captivity. This power of adaptability to cage life is proving its destruction. Thousands of young are collected each year and placed in cages. Of the small per cent of these captives which survive the first few months of their imprisonment, numbers are shipped to North-ern cities and sold. In many communities mocking birds are rapidly becoming exterminated, owing to the treatment which they receive from the hands of the very beings whom they so constantly aid by destroying count-less millions of harmful insects. Some of the fruit growers shoot the birds because they choose to sample now and then the fruit which they have helped to raise.
Once I knew a man, who, along with his other occupations, was a grape grower in a small way. He could not " abide " a mocking bird, he declared, " they ate his grapes so much." He shouted, and waved blankets, and hung up bright pieces of tin to frighten them away, but the birds continued to fill their stomachs with fruit and the farmer with wrath.
One of those pesky little rascals will come," he said, " and go to work on the finest bunch of grapes he can find. He will bite a hole in one, and stick his bill in an-other, and keep on that way until he has ruined the whole bunch. Then he will jump up on top of the vine some-where and shout and sing as though he had done some-thing mighty smart and wanted everybody to know it. And the woodpeckers are about as bad," he added.
So at length the exasperated husbandman put a gun into the hands of his son and offered him a reward of two cents a head for all these birds he would kill within a radius of a mile. And the boy hunted and killed to his heart's content with all the glee of a young savage. Within a week he had shot sixty-five mocking birds, eighteen woodpeckers, seven shrikes, and a pair of kingbirds. In some surprise I asked why he had killed the kingbirds and shrikes.
" I have seen the kingbirds catching our bees," he explained, " and those loggerheads, I don't like them and just hate to have them about."
There were other grape growers in the country, and I asked one of these what he did to keep the mocking birds from eating his grapes.
" 0, that's easy enough ! " he answered. " When the grapes begin to ripen I inclose each bunch in a paper bag and tie the mouth of the bag close about the stem. That keeps the birds from the grapes; and as they are in the dark I sometimes think they ripen more evenly than if left exposed. Shoot them ! shoot a mocking bird? " he ex-claimed, in answer to my suggestion, " why, I wouldn't think of such a thing, they catch too many insects and give me too much fine music to think of killing one. If I had no way of protecting my grapes," he continued, " I should plant more vines, so as to raise enough both for the birds and my own use."
Our mocking bird belongs to a famous family of singers, the brown thrasher and the catbird being his close relatives. Both of these birds are gifted mockers and excellent singers. The localities which mocking birds naturally inhabit are the growths of shrubbery along the borders of forests and swamps. They leave these places as soon as man comes into the wilderness, and flock to his gardens and orchards, as if to protect his trees, and cheer him with their songs. About the dwellings of the few inhabitants of stormy Cape Hatteras they are very abundant. One of the sweetest songs I have ever heard was that of a Cape Hatteras mocking bird, singing from the shelter of a holly bush one day while the wind was blowing a gale and the ocean rolled upon the wreck-strewn sands of the Cape.