June Bird of the Month: Northern Mockingbird

By Elise Brosnan

A few years ago, while I was at the dentist’s, I looked out the window and saw a welcome distraction: a Northern Mockingbird landed on a telephone pole, jumped a few feet in the air, and then gracefully fluttered back down. It repeated this behavior for several minutes.

Northern Mockingbird, Anthony Goldman

Northern Mockingbird, Anthony Goldman

What was this bird doing? If I had seen the whole story, I might have figured it out: Bald Eagles engage in aerial combat, Mallards tussle on the ground, and Northern Mockingbirds have dance battles. In what an academic paper delightfully terms “hostile dancing,” mockingbirds “dance” to proclaim the boundaries of their territory and intimidate would-be usurpers. 

Of course, mockingbirds’ dancing is not nearly as renowned as their singing. Northern Mockingbirds famously copy bird calls and other environmental sounds to create long and complicated songs of their own. Readers may be familiar with the old American lullaby “Hush Little Baby,” where a child is promised a singing mockingbird if he or she behaves. This is not an empty promise or artistic license: because of their ability to learn new songs, mockingbirds were often kept as pets throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The birds were routinely poached from the wild, and populations suffered as a result. Mockingbirds rebounded after the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which outlawed the capture and sale of native migratory birds. 

Mockingbirds were a favorite pet of Thomas Jefferson, who owned many of them throughout his life. He kept at least four during his time as president, making Northern Mockingbirds the first birds to live inside the White House.