Animals

To Kill a Mockingbird

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In the summer months, birds chatter and chirp all day long and mostly, it’s pleasant background music. White sound.

I hardly notice our barn swallows twittering as they commune on the telephone line. (Though they kick up a clamor when a crow swoops into the barn or a cat slinks by.)

And I don’t mind the bird-brained cardinal who head-butts the hallway window for hours at a time. (The kids call him “Crazy Bird.”)

They’re all fine. It’s the mockingbird that I despise.

Because he never shuts up.

You might believe that a mockingbird sounds nice — trilling through his repertoire of tunes.

And it’s ok… in small doses. But our bird sounds off nonstop, nearly 24 hours a day. With my sleep issues, I’ll often wake to hear his shrill songs. His choice perches are the trees that flank the house. He’s raucous at sunrise, midday when the sun is high, and all through the night.

It borders on noise pollution and some mornings I can’t stop myself from yelling, “Shut Up!” as I cross the yard. He doesn’t miss a beat.

“He sounds like he’s imitating different car alarms,” Martin said one evening, as the bird blared from our magnolia tree.

Apparently, this behavior — unfettered singing all night and day — is normal for unmated males. Females also sing, but they are quieter and less vocal.

Mockingbirds also are intelligent, territorial species. One study found that they can recognize and remember individual people whom they perceive are a threat. They can identify a face in a crowd. (I sure as hell couldn’t tell two mockingbirds apart.)

As for their vocalizations, one website notes that they can imitate more than 30 bird songs in succession, but they also branch out to copy cats, dogs, frogs, squirrels, squeaky brakes, and yes… car alarms.

Apparently fruit is a dietary stable and in those rare moments when our bird isn’t belting out his greatest hits, he’s stuffing his beak with our black raspberries.

Once a male mockingbird finds a mate, his simmers down a bit. I wish this guy would hook up already.

Or take song requests… maybe, “The Sound of Silence.”

The latest update: I sat on this material for 7 to 10 days before publishing it, and since then, our mockingbird has found a girl. He’s now just another bird around the barnyard, and is most vocal when he perches on the telephone line and scolds the cats as they saunter near his nest. 

An insect’s worst nightmare

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Well, readers pounced on “Name That Insect” like an assassin fly.

Props to Lee, who accurately identified this insect as a “robber fly,” less than hour after I published the post.

But nice details from Lyn, who also buzzed in correctly, adding, “They are a predatory fly that captures its prey mid-flight. It then stabs its victim and uses its hypopharynx to suck the guts out of the unfortunate prey.”

Wikipedia offers similarly vivid imagery about the robber fly, which is also called an assassin fly:

It waits in ambush and “attacks its prey by stabbing it with its short, strong proboscis [ie, elongated, tubular mouth] injecting the victim with saliva containing neurotoxic enzymes, which rapidly paralyze the victim and soon digests the insides. The fly then sucks the liquefied material through the proboscis.”

Sounds like the insect world’s version of a mobster/alien — the stuff that keeps young flies and bees awake at night!

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Name That Insect, 2016

Wow, it’s been two years since we’ve played the “Name That Bug” game. (And I’ve renamed the contest when I realized that, while all bugs are insects, not all insects are bugs. Blame my nonexistent editor.)

Anyway, November 2014 was the last time I posted one of these. Need a refresher? Click here for that one, and here for the answer.  And here’s another fun one — it wasn’t a reader challenge, but a colorful species just the same.

I wouldn’t have a “Name That Insect” post were it not for my friend Hunter, who thinks of me whenever she spies some freaky looking insect. And since she presently resides in a far-flung desert outpost near Joshua Tree National Park, she comes across plenty of winged oddities. Like this one:

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So what is it? And is it chowing down on a late lunch, or taking advantage of this fly in other ways?

Details: about an inch-and-a-half in length; observed clinging to the side of Hunter’s California home, in the shade.

Come on you wannabe entomologists — y’all did pretty well with the last one.

I’ve done a bit of digging and have a guess, but I’ll wait for your answers before I query my insect expert.

As always, the prize is pride and bragging rights.