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Ode to the Mockingbird



"The construction of an airplane is simple compared with the evolutionary achievement of a bird. If I had to choose, I would rather have birds than airplanes." -- Charles Lindbergh

"Everyone wants to understand painting. Why is there no attempt to understand the song of birds?" -- Pablo Picasso

He moved down the berry tree with the rush-and-pause hucklebuck of a spider moving from a higher twig to a lower. Finally he landed on the steel fence and bounded along it on legs as thin and plucky as banjo strings. Ahead was the enemy, loud, dark, twice his size.

This enemy was one of those brash banditti known to all as crow. This crow turned to face this advance and his look stopped it for the moment. Then the crow seemed to puff up, and he barked the raucous cry of his tribe. He flapped his wings, and his tormentor beat a brief retreat.

So the crow went back to his spot on the fence, but he wasn't there unchallenged very long. Now both birds puffed feathers and issued cries and did whatever things animals do to determine who will prevail and who will yield.

And finally it was the crow that yielded. He lifted off the fence, and his undersized enemy was buzzing around him, nipping at his tailfeathers as he fled.

Welcome to the mockingbird.

There are all sorts of inkslingers out there, essayists and novelists and versifiers, who have taken the typewriter time to write tributes to all sorts of birds. Skylarks, nightingales, robins, eagles -- Lord, yes, eagles -- all of them. Raymond Henri wrote one about a bird, and the last couplet reads, "All you with faith in men/ Come watch the wren." But the mockingbird?

Yet we love them in the South, don't we?

Did you ever crave to see a cat lose a little of that stupendous sangfroid, have that feline dignity mussed up some? Watch one who has pussyfooted too near a mockingbird nest; watch the heroic winged attacks, one swoop after another, like a Graumann P40 dive-bomber until Mister Meow has slunk away with as much shame as any cat is ever likely to feel.

They are not lovely in flight; they're either coming straight when they look like a low-velocity bullet. Or they are flapping around all jerky because, of all the birds, they seem most likely to lack a strategy.

But on the ground -- ah! They are something else on the ground, these Birds Who Want to be Mammals. They hop around all chesty and full of defiance for their lack of size. The Jimmy Cagney of birds, the Pete Rose, the Rosie Perez. I am told that baby mockingbirds are mature enough to leave their parents after only a couple of weeks, and I believe it because they act like they never felt the insecurities of childhood or adolescence.

And on the ground they spread their wings and flap them as they run quickly across a lawn or a field, scaring up insects likely, but we just don't know. There are other things to like. They are city slickers, prickly but communal. They are black and white and gray, all the shades of difference and all the absolutes, too.

And the songs! It's said that a single mockingbird may have a repertoire of more than 50 songs, which is probably bigger and certainly better than Celine Dion's. The mockingbird's scientific name is mimus polyglottas, which literally means "mimic of many tongues," and the little fella imitates multitudes of his fellow flyers better than they can imitate themselves. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and yet no one ever thought to call this species "Flatterbird" or even a "Southern Imitator." No, there is a brazenness about each plagiarism, an "anything-you-can-do" attitude that insured that this saucy imp is always called a mockingbird.

He does not, I must admit, seem like much of a romantic figure, but no less an authority as John James Audubon saw much to like about the bird's lovemaking: "In courtship he flies around his mate like a butterfly, his tail spread wide. He ascends, describes a circle, alights, approaches his loved one, and with his beautiful wings raised gently, bows to her. Then he bounces upward, opens his bill and pours forth his melody, exulting in his conquest with varied and mellow modulations and graduations all up and down the scale."

Scientific candor later requires Audubon to add this about mockingbirds and their nests: "Sometimes they select a place with much carelessness."

So there you have it. Few have felt the need to sing praises of this most supple of singers. Oh, there's been a song written about mockingbirds, but it doesn't really say much about them except that it's vaguely mocking.

They deserve better. The mockingbird is a plain fellow with a beautiful song who happens to suffer fools badly, a fearless fighter and a courtly lover who disdains domestic fastidiousness. Who of us would not trade places with him on most Mondays?

Mock on, little buddy, mock on.


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