The Mockingbird Said What?!

As I began to drive upward along one of the unpaved roads that meander through the Safari Park’s Biodiversity Reserve, the 800 acres California coastal sage scrub habitat situated next to the park, I realized two things. The first was that the height of the road I was on provided me a totally different perspective of our off-exhibit cheetah breeding area, an area where my team and I have spent thousands of hours studying cheetah behavior in order to maximize our breeding efforts of these majestic cats but whose overall size, for some reason, had thus far alluded me. This new view of all of the naturalistic enclosures together brought to mind new ideas of how we may be able to more effectively undertake introductions of potential cheetah suitors in the near future.

This contemplation, however, was soon replaced by a more immediate realization: I was en route to recording some of the native songbirds that call this California scrubland home and I’d forgotten my hat – a situation that on this unseasonably warm day, wasn’t going to bode well for someone as “follicularly challenged” (aka bald) as myself. No matter, the important thing was that I had remembered to refresh the batteries in my digital audio recorder and so was good to go for capturing the calls of two of the inhabitants of this area, the cactus wren and the mockingbird.

Coastal cactus wrens build their nests among spiny cacti.

Coastal cactus wrens build their nests among spiny cacti.

My plan was to sit in one of our hides and quietly observe (and hopefully record) what individuals of each species were doing and, more importantly, saying. As part of much larger, multidivisional effort based at the Institute, what I wanted to achieve on this visit was to ascertain if there were any specific characteristics of the mockingbird’s song that I could find that would help me to distinguish it from that of the cactus wren’s warblings. Mocking birds are notorious mimics and I wanted to make sure that in my later analysis of cactus wren calls (in relation to specific habitat usage) I wasn’t accidentally studying mockingbirds by mistake.

Over the course of several increasingly warmer hours of recording, I was suitably impressed by the mockingbird’s ability to copy cactus wren songs. However, what they were blissfully unaware of was that I was recording their every move (and utterance!) and had stumbled upon a flaw in their imitations. It turns out that at the very end of their version of the cactus wren’s song, mockingbirds simply can’t help but blurt out a cloud of expletives! It is as if there is a limit to how long they can concentrate on copying the notes customarily made by the wrens.

And it is this very mockingbird-specific section of their call that I have since taught our acoustic software to recognize so that I can be certain of whom I’m listening to!

This interesting finding is proving invaluable in helping with my long term remote monitoring of home territories of the cactus wrens. When I’m not able to be in the field, I have small, weatherproof recording devices listening around the clock on my behalf. Around the clock recordings from these amazing little machines are also helping us to better link wren behavior to ongoing efforts focusing upon re-establishing the Opuntia prickly pair cactus which provide these diminutive songbirds their preferred nesting sites.

Over the next few months I plan to follow the wrens throughout the breeding season to monitor how many pairs reproduce successfully during 2014. I have also made a note to self to make a concerted effort to always remember my hat and sunscreen in the future!

Matt Anderson, Ph.D., is the director of behavioral ecology.

6 Responses to The Mockingbird Said What?!

  1. Great reading! I love mockingbirds and there was one time, I was able to “mimic” back to a mockingbird sitting on a fence. I swear that bird did a triple take. So I must have gotten it pretty close. Around my apartment complex, a few mockingbirds have learned to imitate pet cockatiels.) Sure wish you could have attached a sound clip–it would have been interesting to hear.
    Matt, also be sure to remember sunglasses. Quite important to protect your eyes too. Too much sun is thought to contribute to cataracts. Make yourself a big note right where you will see it–Sunscreen, sunglasses, hat! (There are even hats that have UV protection. Mine even has a neck flap to protect my neck.)

  2. About two years ago my son was visiting and the mocking birds were present in the back yard. They were singing loudly. My son does a trill whistle that is quite different. He was doing the trill at them. Suddenly, the mocking birds hushed their singing. Then we heard the one mocking bird mimicing the trill. This spring I was working in the back yard when I heard that trill and said to myself, “DeWayne’s here.” I went to the door – no DeWayne. I went back into the back yard and there was the mocking bird singing and adding that trill. Amazing that he was still singing it after two years.

    • Thelma…wow, how interesting your story is, that a mockingbird liked the trill after 2 years! Thank you for that

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the efforts in recording the Cactus Wren verses the clever Mockingbird. I loved the discovery of their simply dropping the imitation after a spell. I would love to participate in the this field study. Hope to hear more about the research and study you are involved with. Hope to hear about the updates on successful habitat recovery and the pairing of the Cactus Wrens.
    Thank you for sharing and remember the hat.

  4. Loved this blog – so funny! Cracked me up that the mockingbirds have to add expletives to the end of their songs (I have days like that too lol)

  5. For several seasons we had a Mockingbird that imitated the neighbor’s car alarm which he seemed to set off by mistake on a regular basis. At the end was that same different series of notes I now know as expletives. He must have heard some from us as well.
    I rescued a baby mockingbird which I tried to teach the USC fight song. He listened intently, but I never heard him repeat it. When I released him, he would return looking for my handout, but never did he sing that song. Must have been corrupted by a Bruin!