Sunday, January 11, 2009

An avian Rich Little

On a recent foray into the backwoods of Hocking County, I had the good fortune of happening onto a most cooperative Northern Mockingbird. You may know the species, which is a mimic extraordinaire. Indeed, it's scientific moniker is Mimus polyglottos: roughly, mimic of many voices.

Handsome mockingbird scopes us out. Curious and inquisitive, mockers will often closely investigate those who invade their turf. This one wasn't singing, but when they do, it's time well spent listening to their varied repertoire. An individual can retain something on the order of 200 distinct "songs", or imitatations.

Like Rich Little, a skilled mockingbird can ape almost anything. I am fortunate to have a resident mockingbird where I live, and often pause to listen to him. You name it, he picks up it up and parrots it back. Predictable imitations are of common birds that he would frequently hear: Carolina Chickadee, Eastern Meadowlark, Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, and so on. But I have been quite impressed when he pulls off a masterful rendition of the local garbage truck's backup warning beep, or a decent version of the fire truck's siren.

And they can be persistent, like the semi-drunken Karaoke singer who won't shut up. Unmated males, especially, are prone to singing all night, often from the summit of one's chimney.

Northern Mockingbirds are really southerners, at least to those of us at the latitude of Ohio. They have expanded northward with the clearing of the great deciduous forest that once blanketed much of the eastern U.S., as openings, fields, and thickets were created. Ohio is on the cusp of their northward advance; in southern counties they are quite common, but along Lake Erie they are rare and noteworthy.

Handsome bloke, eh? He was pretty much getting in our faces, as mockers are wont to do to perceived intruders. They don't tolerate interlopers readily, and stories of mockingbird bravado are legion.

When I was a kid growing up in Worthington, Ohio, we had a cat named Inky. Tough as nails and seemingly bulletproof, Inky intimidated nearly everyone and everything he encountered. Big, coal-black, with shining yellow eyes, he struck fear into dogs, cats, and people. I remember, as a little boy, occasional times laying on the couch watching the tube when Inky would decide to use me as a pillow. Up he'd come, sprawling on my chest with a paw around either side of my neck, his face with those glowing yellow eyes just inches from my worried face. I didn't dare move a muscle, for fear of the fallout if I displeased Inky. Once, I made a move he disapproved of - I was probably trying to breath or something - when blanketed by this savage. He promptly lunged forward and bit me on the nose - hard!

The quintessential alleycat scrapper, Inky routinely made a point of showing lesser neighborhood cats who the Alpha was. Frequent were the nighttime wails of flailing felines, and over the years the Inkster developed some distinctive battle scars, such as permanently shredded ears.

In a true story that had to be seen to be believed, Inky would toy ruthlessly with the neighbor's pack of terriers. They raised scads of these medium-sized annoying yipsters, and when the mob would spot Inky strolling in our backyard, a cacophony of yaps would go up and the canine pipsqueaks would all roar over to the fence and set up a racket, Inky being the target of their wrath.

Of course, the dogs were safely ensconced behind their six-foot chain link fence - little bullies with big talk.

So, Inky would casually stroll over to the fence, and then - believe me or not - make one of those fantastic, graceful leaps that cats do so well, and suddenly he is ON TOP of the fence. Now, the volume control on the terrier brigade has gone from seven to ten, and they are practically apoplectic over this cat who is so clearly disrespecting them.

After a short waltz along the fence top, seemingly oblivious to the chattering fools below, Inky would pause for good effect, and drop gracefully into the terrier's yard! Told ya, you'd have to see it to believe it! Suddenly, as if by magic, the six or eight dogs suddenly remembered all of the chores they had forgotten or other duties left undone. The yipping stopped, and dogs rather quickly sauntered off here and there, but with one common orientation - away from the cat. And Inky, the Clint Eastwood of felines, leisurely poked his way through the yard, probably hoping one of those fuzzy punks would make his day, and jumped across the fence on the opposite side.

You get my point. This was one tough cat.

But not to our local mockingbird. The mocker despised Inky with a passion, and lost no opportunity to make his displeasure of the cat known. In fact, I think that bird was the only animal I ever saw that cowed the Inkster. I remember being astonished, the first time I saw this, hearing the mockingbird making all sorts of racket, and looking out to see why. There was Inky, trapped under a lawn chair and looking frazzled, while the mocker let him have it with every curse in his stable. The bird would sit right on the back of the chair, yammering away, and when Inky made an effort to run to other cover, the mocker was right on him, swooping low like a feathered dive-bomber and trying to peck the poor beast.

I hope the terriers weren't watching.


KatDoc said...

Mockingbirds are a part of my birding life, winter and summer, here in SW Ohio. I always pause a moment when I read a report from northern Ohio listing Northern Mockingbird as a rare sighting. It's hard to imagine not seeing these handsome singers nearly every day.

I had a nest of mockers in a hanging flower basket one summer. The parents and I had an arrangement, and they let me water the plant carefully every couple of days. As the young neared fledging age, I was a little sloppy with the watering can, and apparently splashed the nest.

Instantly, there was an explosion of baby mockingbirds, pop-pop-popcorning out of the nest and scattering to the four winds. The parents went on full alert, diving and squawking, the dogs ran around barking, and I think I must have screamed, too.

Once the dogs were corralled and the young ones accounted for, everybody calmed down, but it was a real 3 alarm disaster in my yard for a few minutes.

(The mockers never again nested in a hanging plant!)

Thanks for the story of Inky!


Anonymous said...

I loved the Inky story!
Gary Wayne

Anonymous said...

Loved your Inky story!

Your mockingbird photo was nice but a picture of your nose in Inky's mouth would have been priceless.

Thanks for both educating and entertaining us.

Julie Zickefoose said...

I like that Inky story, too. He sounds like quite a kitty. Not sure I'd want him on my chest! Yikes!