What do catbirds, thrashers and mockingbirds have in common? If you answered they all mimic other birds, you’d be right. Although a number of birds play at mimicking other birds, mockingbirds, thrashers and catbirds are specialists, to the point of having their own family, Mimidae, Latin for ‘mimic’. Mockingbirds have earned their name, spending hours sometimes, relentlessly expressing their remarkable repertoire of the songs of other species, singing a seemingly never-ending series of short phrases which are repeated two to six times before moving into a new series. How many songs does a mockingbird sing? Easily hundreds, and each bird continues to learn and perfect new songs as he (or she) is exposed to other birds. And not just other birds; mockingbirds as well as other mimics are also expert at copying almost any sound from ringing telephones to swinging flagpole chains. We were having a hamburger on In ‘N Out’s patio one day when we heard a cell phone ring. Since we were alone, we assumed a guest had forgotten his phone until we saw a Curve-billed Thrasher doing a perfect telephone imitation.
Although the why and wherefore of vocal mimicry by birds is still a subject of debate among ornithologists, it appears to have nothing to do with deceit but rather much to do with sex (what’s new?) Studied evidence suggests that the more a bird’s song repertoire is expanded, the more successful that bird is in intimidating rivals and attracting and stimulating females. Here in Southeastern Arizona, we’re fortunate to have both mockingbirds and thrashers when it comes to avian opera, although when springtime rivalry gets mockingbirds up at O-dark thirty, some light sleepers might take exception. Of the five thrashers found in southeast Arizona, the most common is the Curve-billed Thrasher, our backyard bird with the signature loud and sharp two or three whistles. Many newcomers to Arizona are pleasantly surprised when they discover that this noisy brash and bullying ‘pack rat with wings’ is also a closet Pavarotti, perched high in the open, singing his heart out where you expected to find a Northern Mockingbird. As much as these two birds seem to sound alike, it’s actually easy to distinguish one from the other. The song of a mockingbird is a regular repetition of short phrases, while that of a thrasher is more chaotic, irregular and occasionally punctuated with that signature sharp whistle. Sort of like amateur hour when it comes to opera.
You’ll have to travel east to find Gray Catbirds, the third member of the Mimid family, since they’re rarely seen in Arizona. Often, they’re rarely seen where they live as well, since they are darkly colored, solitary and elusive in brush and heavy vegetation. However, when a male catbird chooses to sing, he seeks the limelight like other prima donnas and finds an exposed and open perch. We had no trouble finding these striking and beautiful birds on a trip to Virginia last May.
When birdsong fills the air, but you have trouble identifying the bird, think ‘Mimid’ and look for a mockingbird, thrasher or catbird. You should also consider these same birds when you hear the ‘phone’ ring, a flagpole chain or a barking dog.
(This article will appear in the November, 2018 issue of the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)