By Keith Michael
This is the day upon which we are reminded of what we are on the other three hundred and sixty-four.
~Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s SUPERMAN!
April Fool! It’s a bird: A Northern Mockingbird to be exact. A sleek gray super-songster with a white chest, lemon-yellow eyes, longish legs, flamboyant white borders on its tilted-up tail, and brazen white wing-patches flashing every time it flies. They’ve stayed around the past months defending the Callery Pear stores. They don’t head south to be a “Southern Mockingbird” unless it gets really cold (which it didn’t this year). You’ve probably heard them singing their multi-lingual patois months ago in the middle of this bi-polar winter (and in the middle of the night too), already staking out territory and proclaiming, “I love you! I love you! I love you! (or alternatively, advertising, “Love me! Love me! Love me!”) from the highest perch on the block.
Are you hearing a jaunty collection of bird songs? Not quite one thing or another? Not quite just sweet, not quite just noisy, not only a chip or a twitter or a chirup? Look up. Look up to the highest branch of a tree, the corner of a cornice, a chimney cap, a TV antennae or a water tower finial. There he’ll be. It is probably a “he”, though the ladies get in their two or three cents as well. However, more likely, the ladies are sitting back in the shade of an ivy-covered wall marking their score cards: ready to flip over a “2” (sorry fella), a “7” (maybe, oh, I’m getting a text), or a solid “10” (baby, let’s make a YouTube video and go viral).
A Mockingbird’s singing is the aural equivalent of the extravagant tail of the male peacock. What evolutionary quirks started the female Mockingbird through the labyrinth of selecting her guy based on his singing finesse or the hen peacock turning up her beak at a potential date unless his tail was oh-so-much-more-spectacular than that other well-dressed gentleman’s down at the end of the bar?
It’s a theatrical performance she sits through—basking in this wanna-be-Frank Sinatra’s repertoire while sipping a sloe gin fizz. Some Mockingbird crooners have been recorded having several hundred different tunes on Shuffle; they riff on one for a few repeats, then move on to the next, reeling off a playlist of greatest hits for an hour or more before any reprises. They repeat songs from the birds in the neighborhood (Cardinals, Catbirds, Starlings, House Finches, Robins, dead ringer Blue Jays), songs from their travels (maybe one particularly desperate winter was spent in the Caribbean learning folk songs from the locals). Street noises are open to impersonation as well: car alarms, garbage trucks backing up, cell phones, dog barks and cricket chirps. Some tunes seem to only return at certain times of the year like our Christmas carols or Yankee Doodle on the Fourth of July, or they even return next season as though a single was no longer at the top of the charts, or, “Oh, I forgot that I knew that one. I haven’t sung that since I was a teenager.”
I always think that Mockingbirds must have a sense of humor or are practical-jokester-holics or are hopelessly ironic to devote their time and musical affinities to the art of impersonation (akin to my corgi Millie who thinks that Debbie Reynolds imitating Zsa Zsa Gabor is hilarious). If some hip urban Mocker took to hanging out in Washington Square Park singing his own edgy tunes rather than golden oldies, would a circle of sweaty groupies swoon or is there just not a startup market for indie originality in the Mockingbird world?
Hey, that was just the unmistakable falling whinny of a Red-tailed Hawk! Look up!
April Fool! Another Mockingbird hawking his wares. What kind of fool am I?
For more information about birding outings, photographs or books visit www.keithmichaelnyc.com.