Mississippi’s official state bird, the northern mockingbird, is known to science as Mimus polyglottos—“mimic of many voices.” Initially selected through a campaign of the Mississippi Federation of Women’s Clubs, the clubs later lobbied for the mockingbird’s official acceptance by the state. Both the House and the Senate unanimously passed bills favoring the choice, and Gov. Thomas Lowry Bailey signed the bill into law on 23 February 1944.
The northern mockingbird is nowhere more common than in the southeastern states, and its vocal prowess, conspicuousness, and close association with humans have led to its selection as the state bird not only of Mississippi, which was the last to do so, but also of Florida and Texas (1927), Arkansas (1929), and Tennessee (1933).
While the northern mockingbird can be found as a breeding bird from southern New England to California, it is a strong part of regional culture in the Southeast. A singing mockingbird often adds local color to stories focused on the South, as in Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter.
In the early nineteenth century the genus name of the mockingbird was given as Orpheus, a name derived from a figure in Greek mythology sometimes called the Father of Songs. The bird is familiar through much of North America because of its loud and frequent singing and its ability to mimic not only other birds but other animals and mechanical sounds such as a tractor engine, the squeak of a gate, or even the ring of a cell phone. The mockingbird has readily adopted suburban and backyard habitats and sings from open perches where it is easily seen.
Naturalist John James Audubon, who lived for a time in Woodville, Mississippi, noted in 1840, “It is where the great magnolia shoots up its majestic trunk, crowned with evergreen leaves, and decorated with a thousand beautiful flowers that perfume the air; where the forests and fields are adorned with blossoms of every hue . . . that the mockingbird should have fixed its abode, there only that its wondrous song should be heard.” A little over a decade later, Benjamin Wailes, Mississippi’s state geologist, wrote, “In form, attitude, and motion, nothing exceeds the grace of our matchless ‘Orpheus.’ . . . In music and mimicry unrivalled, proud of his gift of song, he is not content with its daily exhibition, but for hours in the ‘stilly night’ pours forth a flood of melody.”
While the mockingbird is its own best advertisement and has been heralded by Mississippians since the colonial period, the crescendo of support it received from residents during the campaign organized by the Mississippi Federation of Women’s Clubs may well have been influenced by a recording of a singing mockingbird made on a golf course in Greenville in 1940. John A. Fox, manager of the Greenville Chamber of Commerce, was playing golf when he heard and saw a mockingbird singing from a low perch nearby. It occurred to him that thousands of people in northern states had never heard the mockingbird’s song, so he recruited Paul Thompson of Greenville radio station WJPR to help him record the bird. They strung nearly four hundred feet of wire from the nearest electrical outlet to the No. 3 tee where the bird sang and ultimately recorded the mockingbird singing within three feet of the microphone. The Greenville Chamber of Commerce then produced a phonograph record.
Mockingbirds are very territorial, defending their entire home range against not only other mockingbirds but almost all birds as well as cats, dogs, and sometimes people. Unlike some species, mockingbirds show their defensive behavior year-round. Mockingbirds are generalists when it comes to food, eating insects, snails, worms, berries, and other fruits. Because of their catholic diet, almost any other bird might be considered a competitor for food, which might explain mockingbirds’ defensiveness. Since songbirds typically defend their territory with song, it has been suggested that the mockingbird’s mimicry might trick competitors into thinking that the area is already occupied by birds of an intruder’s species, with the result that the intruder moves on. Of course, the mockingbird’s efforts do not always succeed. When a flock of cedar waxwings or European starlings arrives, a mockingbird resorts to a frenzy of aggressive chases but often loses the berries that remain on a shrub or tree and that might have supported the mockingbird through the winter.
Another mockingbird behavior that has attracted attention is wing flashing. A northern mockingbird often moves slowly across a lawn, stopping intermittently to quickly spread both wings, revealing large white areas. This behavior seems to be associated with the search for food: the quick flash might startle insects, causing them to move and thus making them easier for the mockingbird to discover. The white spots may also reflect light ahead of the bird, casting a little light into recesses in the grass and, again, making it easier for the mockingbird to find food.
Mockingbirds typically build nests composed of twigs and lined with finer materials and locate their nests in dense shrubs or small trees. The rim of a mockingbird nest is often composed of twigs with thorns or short stubs of branches that the birds carefully place so that the thorns or stubs slip into crevices and help hold the structure together. The end result is that mockingbird nests are very sturdy, often lasting more than a season, though normally they are used only once to hold blue-green eggs and raise a brood of three to five young.
- James J. Audubon and J. B. Chevalier, The Birds of America (1840–44)
- K. C. Derrickson and R. Breitwisch, in The Birds of North America, ed. A. Poole, P. Stettenheim, and F. Gill (1992)
- Robin W. Doughty, The Mockingbird (1988)
- B. L. C. Wailes, Report on the Agriculture and Geology of Mississippi, Embracing a Sketch of the Social and Natural History of the State (1854)