Saturday, April 19, 2014 · 2:52 a.m.

Riverwalk Bird of the Week: Northern mockingbird

A medium-sized songbird, a bit more slender than a thrush and with a longer tail, mockingbirds have small heads; long, thin bills with a hint of a downward curve; and long legs. (Photo: Jack Gentle Jr.)

The folks in the Riverwalk Bird Club don't just watch birds. The group includes some excellent photographers. Outdoors is happy to share their great photos by featuring a Bird of the Week.

This week, we feature the official Tennessee state bird—a northern mockingbird, taken by Jack Gentle Jr.

If you’ve been hearing an endless string of 10 or 15 different birds singing outside your house, you might have a northern mockingbird in your yard. These slender-bodied gray birds apparently pour all their color into their personalities. They sing almost endlessly, even sometimes at night; and they flagrantly harass birds that intrude on their territories, flying slowly around them or prancing toward them, legs extended, flaunting their bright white wing patches.

Interesting facts
—It’s not just other mockingbirds that appreciate a good song. In the 19th century, people kept so many mockingbirds as cage birds that the birds nearly vanished from parts of the East Coast. People took nestlings out of nests or trapped adults and sold them in cities such as Philadelphia, St. Louis and New York—where, in 1828, extraordinary singers could fetch as much as $50.

—Northern mockingbirds continue to add new sounds to their repertoires throughout their lives. A male may learn as many as 200 songs throughout its life.

—The northern mockingbird frequently gives a "wing flash" display, where it half or fully opens its wings in jerky intermediate steps, showing off the big white patches. No one knows why it does this, but it may startle insects, making them easier to catch. On the other hand, it doesn’t often seem to be successful, and different mockingbird species do this same display even though they don’t have white wing patches.

—Northern mockingbirds sing all through the day and often into the night. Most nocturnal singers are unmated males, which sing more than mated males during the day, too. Nighttime singing is more common during the full moon.

—Northern mockingbirds typically sing from February through August and again from September to early November. A male may have two distinct repertoires of songs: one for spring and another for fall.

—The female northern mockingbird sings, too, although usually more quietly than the male does. She rarely sings in the summer and usually only when the male is away from the territory. She sings more in the fall, perhaps to establish a winter territory.

—The oldest northern mockingbird on record was 14 years, 10 months old.

This information is courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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