purple martins

To Kill a Mockingbird

glendale_arizona_northern_mockingbird_10-04-10

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. 

Avian Abode

That slime mold post is too gross to get top billing. So let’s move on to something more pleasant: our neighbors’ purple martin colony.

For all you non-ornithologists, the purple martin is the largest member of the swallow family — an agile, acrobatic bird that feeds on flying insects. Purple martins overwinter in South America and migrate north in the spring to nest and breed.

Now here’s where things get interesting: purple martins around found throughout the US but east of the Rockies, they are entirely dependent on humans for artificial housing. Without the construction of nesting gourds and martin houses, these birds would disappear in eastern states. (Reasons for their decline? Aggressive, non-native birds; prolific and opportunistic native species; and weather extremes that affect insects.)

Our neighbors Chet and Paula are purple martin supporters. Each year they hang several gourd clusters in their yard. Right now there are oodles of birds singing and plucking flies from of the sky.

Recently, Chet invited a few people over while he lowered the gourds for a nest check.

Brynn missed the “casual dress” memo.

But she contributed to the captive audience.

As Chet lowered the gourds, we discovered that a few nests were occupied by uninvited tenants. Squatters, so to speak, including a tiny swallow that fluttered out and onto the ground.

If not for the onlookers, I think that baby sparrow would have been evicted. But bowing to pint-sized presence, Chet put the fledgling back in its nest.

Fortunately most of the gourds housed purple martin families…

or families to be.

While the kids gazed inside, Chet and Paula took inventory of the babies and eggs. Meanwhile the parents perched atop neighboring poles, overseeing the activity. Once the nests were restored to their normal height, the birds returned. Business as usual.