Adult northern mockingbird upperparts are gray, with two white wing bars and a white crescent at the base of the primary wing feathers. The tail is dark gray with white outer tail feathers. The white patches in the wings and tail are only obvious when seen in flight or courtship displays. Underparts are light gray. Bill is long and slightly downcurved. Young birds are gray-streaked below, like a thrasher. The song is a highly varied series of repeated notes, frequently mimicking other bird species. Each phrase is usually repeated 3–5 times before the next phrase begins. They frequently sing all night long. The call is a loud tcheck or tseek.
Similar species: The brown thrasher’s song has phrases only one or a few notes long, with each phrase repeated just 2–3 times; its call is a loud smack or stet. The gray catbird’s song is a jumble of many varied phrases, with little or no apparent repetition; its call is a moderately loud meeoow or kute.
Length: 10 inches (tip of bill to tip of tail).
Statewide; most common in the southern half of the state.
Habitat and Conservation
Summer residents frequent open areas with shrubs, such as gardens, parks, and landscaped yards. Northern mockingbirds often walk and hop on the ground, habitually cocking their tails and opening and closing their wings. They are nimble, showy flyers, showing off their white wing patches.
In summer, northern mockingbirds forage on a wide variety of insects, spiders, lizards, snakes, crayfish, and fruits. As with most wintering fruit-eating birds, they will come to feeders stocked with fruits such as raisins and cranberries; they also appreciate mealworms. Mockingbirds defend certain fruit-bearing shrubs all winter, reserving them for their own food supply.
As a summer resident, common in the southern part of the state, but uncommon in the extreme north. As a winter resident, uncommon in the Ozark and Ozark Border regions, and rare in the Glaciated Plains. North American populations declined during the second half of the 20th century. In the 19th century, before bird conservation laws were passed, young mockingbirds were routinely taken from their nests or captured as adults and sold as cage birds, nearly extirpating them in some areas.
Cup nests are built of twigs and a variety of other materials, including trash. Clutches comprise 2–6 eggs; incubation lasts 12–13 days. Fledging occurs 12–13 days after hatching. There can be up to 3 broods a year. The ability to learn and copy the songs of other birds and blend them into a lengthy song apparently arose as a way for male mockingbirds to court, bond, and coordinate reproduction with females. Apparently it does not play a large role in male-male territorial competitions.
The northern mockingbird is the official bird of no less than 5 states. It had been the state bird of South Carolina, too, until that state switched to the more original (not to mention fitting) Carolina wren in 1948. Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-winning novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” came out in 1960.
Like many frugivores (fruit eaters), mockingbirds eat many insects and other animal foods in the summer, as their growing nestlings require the extra protein. Their ability to switch back and forth between insects and fruits enables them to find food during the winter, when insects are scarce.