Curve-billed Thrasher

Curve-billed Thrasher, Tucson (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

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.

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird enjoying an orange (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

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.

Gray Catbird in Virginia

Gray Catbird, Alexandria, Virginia (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

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.

Singing Curve-billed Thrasher

Singing Curve-billed Thrasher (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

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)

About Bob

A lifelong naturalist, Bob's avocation is birding, including field observation, study, photography and writing. He spent a career in computers and consulting, but his free time has been spent outdoors backpacking, fishing and enjoying nature firsthand. Bob has traveled extensively, exploring and photographing above and underwater in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now retired, as an amateur ornithologist Bob studies, photographs and writes primarily about birds of the Western Hemisphere. Formerly the Feature Writer for Latin America and Caribbean Travel at Suite101.com, he has been Suite101's Feature Writer for Birds and Birding since January, 2010, and has received seven Editor's Choice awards, which are listed below. Bob also writes a monthly birding column for a newspaper in Arizona, and his work appears in the travel magazine, Another Day in Paradise, published in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. His blog, Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond, discusses birding, travel and other topics in Southeast Arizona and beyond. Bob is a member of the National and Tucson Audubon Societies, Western Field Ornithologists, Arizona Field Ornithologists, the American Birding Association and other birding and conservation organizations. Bob and his wife, Prudy, live in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills near Tucson, Arizona. To date, Bob has received Suite101 Editor's Choice awards for the following articles: • Birding by Cruise Ship in the Caribbean • The Xantus' Hummingbird, Baja California's Only Endemic Hummer • Birding the White Mountains in and Around Greer, Arizona • The Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico's State Bird • Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon • Birding La Bajada near San Blas, Mexico • The 2008 Christmas Bird Count at Estero del Yugo in Mazatlan
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