Late one evening, I was sitting on the porch, reading a book. My attention was drawn by a medley of bird sounds. I was curious to locate the source of these sounds. To my great surprise all these sounds came from a lone grey bird sitting on top of a tree. When a hummingbird tentatively approached it, the grey bird imitated its call! It also made a prancing movement to chase the hummingbird off. As I was watching, there was a sound of a car horn in the distance and the bird let out a honk-like chirp! I was totally entranced with this amazing display. I was reminded of a video of David Attenborough in which a superb lyre bird made sounds like the click of a camera shutter and a chain saw. Over the next couple of days, it continued to keep me company without fail.
With the help of Sibley’s guide, I could identify it as the Northern Mockingbird. Curious about this strange bird, I started reading about it.
First described by Linnaeus in 1758, the mockingbird’s modern scientific name is Mimus polyglottos, which means “many-tongued mimic,” because rather than singing their own songs, these birds learn and repeat the songs of other species. In addition to birdsongs, northern mockingbirds can repeat dog barks, musical instruments, and sirens. A single bird can learn up to 200 songs during its lifetime and will continue to add new sounds to their repertoires throughout their lives. Its capacity to improvise is so extensive that it rarely repeats them, and the listener will never quite know what will come out of its beak next. It is veritably an avian karaoke machine!
The most famous American to keep a mockingbird as a pet was Thomas Jefferson, which he bought from a slave for five shillings. He also has the distinction of being the first U.S. President to keep a pet in the White House. Over the years, he would go on to own at least four mockingbirds. He even took a mockingbird with him to France, a trip during which the bird learned not only to sing French songs, but also to imitate the creaking of the timbers on the ship that carried it across the Atlantic. Jefferson would leave the bird free in the White House. It would fly around, perch on the president’s shoulder while he worked and even sing duets with Jefferson as he played the violin. Jefferson’s appreciation for this unique species is apparent in his suggestion to a friend that he should “teach all the children to venerate the mockingbird as a superior being in the form of a bird.”
Jefferson’s idea that the mockingbird is “a superior being in the form of a bird” is enshrined in many Native American cultures. The Cherokee embraced mockingbirds as the embodiment of cleverness and intelligence, while Hopi and other Pueblo peoples told stories in which the bird was the bringer of language who taught the people to speak. Further west, Maricopa Indians believed that dreaming of the mockingbird was a sign that the dreamer would soon receive special powers. Shasta Indian culture considered the bird a sacred guardian of the dead, while Papago and Pima folklore considered the mockingbird as a mediator whose song functions as a bridge between the human and animal worlds.
Its continuing appeal can be gauged by the fact that many states in USA have adopted the Northern Mockingbird as their state bird.
The first time I had a glimpse of the mockingbird was on the cover of Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, an unforgettable story of childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it. For me like many of that generation, the novel had an immediate appeal. In the words of JD Salinger in Catcher in the Rye "What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it”.
What lingers on in memory about the novel is the obvious symbolism of the mockingbird. It is the story of a girl nicknamed Scout growing up in a Depression-era Southern town. A black man has been wrongly accused of raping a white woman, and Scout's father, the resolute lawyer Atticus Finch, defends him despite threats and the scorn of many. Scout and her friend Jem learn that it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, because they don’t do anything to damage other creatures and therefore should never be harmed. In the novel, several characters can be emblematic of mockingbirds. Surely Tom Robinson, accused of a crime he didn’t truly commit, can be on the top of that list. Tom’s innocence stems from the fact that he tried to help a fellow human being and ended up losing his life over it, all due to circumstances outside of his control, such as being a black person. It also represents Boo Radley, who is a harmless victim of prejudice. Killing mockingbirds becomes shorthand for any gratuitous violence directed at innocent, unassuming individuals.
To kill a mockingbird is a sin, but to allow it to be killed is even worse.
As much as the song of the mockingbird is a joyous patchwork of melody, it is also a forceful call to defend its territory. I wonder whether by choosing the mockingbird as a predominant symbol in the book, Lee was also hinting that it is imperative for racially discriminated people to defend themselves more assertively.
Theater owners in Birmingham, Alabama, refused to screen the movie based on the book when it was ready for release, given the tone of the book. It was no coincidence that Martin Luther King Jr. was composing his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” at the same time. Unlike some birds like the Eagle, Hawk, Crow, and Vulture whose symbolisms are practically static, the representation of mockingbird has changed over time. In the Hunger Games series, the mockingbird was the other half of the genetically modified “mockingjay”, which turned into a symbol of rebellion in the second rebellion which emerges from the resentment towards the brutally repressive Snow regime.
Let me end with a Mayan tale of “How Mockingbird Became the Best Singer.”
Once there was a mockingbird who wanted to be a good singer. The family had little resources to support her talents.
One day she began working for a wealthy family of Cardinals. During her employ, a renowned singing teacher came into the area. Father Cardinal wanted his daughter to become an excellent singer, but she laughed at the idea, feeling she needed no such help. Her father was determined and finally offered her enough incentives in the form of gifts, to consent.
The daughter Cardinal went into the woods with her teacher. Mockingbird followed silently behind, listening. This went on for weeks until the professor got wholly frustrated with the daughter’s lack of interest and progress. Fearing the Father Cardinal’s reaction, he flew away.
There came a day when Father Cardinal wanted his daughter to perform for friends. She, of course, was terrified of telling her family that she hadn’t learned even a single song. She had, however, overheard mockingbird singing to herself during chores and decided to ask for help. Mockingbird hid herself in a tree trunk singing while the daughter pretended to sing.
Father Cardinal knew of the ruse, having seen Mockingbird sneak into the tree before the concert. After the applause quietened, Father Cardinal called for Mockingbird to come out. The tiny grey bird came out nervously. Father Cardinal proceeded to tell everyone the truth and called upon the mockingbird to sing once more. Her song was so beautiful that all her descendants would forever have a lovely singing voice while the Cardinal never would.
It is a story emphasizing that hard work, enthusiasm and persistence will truly pay off.
Mockingbird also teaches us how to be curious and continue to learn from experience. Every sound a mockingbird sings comes from exploration and discovery. It gains its strength through simulation blended with innovation.
We can draw inspiration from the mockingbird that life is an unfolding series of experiences and an abiding attitude to continue to learn from them is the essence of life.
It keeps me company on many an evening, inspiring muse within...
As I watch it Our gaze slips And the mockingbird Finds its home Among knotted branches...