Bird Lore: Northern Mockingbird

The Northern Mockingbird is a permanent resident within its range. It does not breed in Washington and our state is not included in range maps for this species. Nonetheless, Northern Mockingbirds do show up in Washington every year in very small numbers. We have had four birds in Edmonds, starting in 2002 with the last one seen in 2018. Sightings have been in November, December, April and August. In 2013-14 a Northern Mockingbird spent late fall and winter in a neighborhood just north of Perrinville where there was an abundance of holly berries. The waterfront and the marsh have been more typical locations.

The permanent range of the Northern Mockingbird includes California, much of Mexico, northern Caribbean islands, the southern U.S. and eastern states as far north as southern Maine. Its breeding range includes southern Oregon. It is very common in cities and towns in the southern part of its range. Because it seeks insects on lawns and other open ground, it favors areas of short grass or open soil near dense low shrubs. In the West it can be numerous in desert thickets or along canyon streams.

Diet of the Northern Mockingbird is mostly insects and berries. It feeds heavily on insects in late spring and summer, including beetles, grasshoppers, caterpillars, ants and wasps. When running on open ground in search of insects, it may stop frequently and partially spread its wings, showing off its large white wing patches. In fall and winter its diet leans more toward berries and wild fruits, including those of holly and hawthorn. It will perch in shrubs and trees to eat berries.

In southern areas, nesting begins by late winter. The male sings to defend his territory and attract a mate. He will frequently leap a few feet into the air and flap his wings while singing.The male and female will chase each other around the territory in the early stage of courtship. The nest is usually located in a dense shrub or tree, 3-10 feet above ground. A bulky foundation of twigs supports an open cup of weeds, leaves, and grasses, lined with finer materials.

The female incubates her three to four eggs for 12-13 days. Both adults feed the nestlings. The young birds leave the nest about 12 days after hatching, but they can’t fly for at least another week. The Northern Mockingbird will have two to three broods per year.

The Northern Mockingbird will sing throughout the day and often into the night. Most nocturnal singers are unmated males. The female also sings but more quietly. She sings rarely in summer, usually when the male is away from their territory. She sings more often in fall, perhaps to establish a winter territory. The oldest Northern Mockingbird of record was at least 14 years and 10 months of age when it was found in Texas. There are a number of collective nouns for a group of any mockingbirds, including echo, exactness, plagiary and ridicule.

From the late 1700s to the early 1900s, the Northern Mockingbird was often captured for sale as a pet. Because of the cage-bird trade, the population became scarce along the northern edge of its range. When that trade ended, the Northern Mockingbird repopulated its northern range. Its population is now estimated at 32 million and its conservation status is of low concern.

A male Northern Mockingbird will learn about 200 songs over its life. With such an extensive repertoire, this song is just one example of what might be heard:

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

  1. I saw one that looked like the first photo at the marsh Monday. I never saw one before and didn’t know what it was until I saw this posting. I didn’t have time to get a photo before it disappeared into the bushes.

  2. I am in and assisted living facility in Phoenix Arizona. We have a park outside with several large trees and a lot of bushes and grass. At first noticed these birds last year and did some searching on the internet to find they were northern mockingbirds. They had a nest in a large tree and hatched out three baby birds. They stuck around all winter until the temperatures were going over 100° in April I was pleasantly surprised to see them come back this year. I recorded one of them singing northern birds on my phone and I play it for them. I was pleasantly surprised when I went out about 3 weeks ago and the male showed up right in front of me but he was waiting for me to play the recording on my phone. I now realize this bird prefers my light green t-shirt and if I wear it out there he comes right away and lands about 6-ft from me to wait for me to play in mockingbird song. They are amazing birds.

    1. Great story Charles! I could visualize the entire interaction just by your words; thank you for sharing.

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