Friday, May 13, 2016
Do it all night long
It's two o'clock in the morning and he's out there, shouting at the top of his lungs, cheerup-cheerup-cheerup, cheep cheep cheep, cheetledoodle cheetledoodle, churrip churrip churrip! It's a mockingbird, and he won't shut up. He's doing it all night long and disrupting my sleep.
Mimus polyglottos is the northern mockingbird native to North America. Its linnaean name means "many-tongued mimic." It's a small, grey bird, barred with white on its wings. Mockingbirds copy and remember the sounds in their environment, not just songs of other birds but also animal sounds, like the chipping of squirrels, and human-generated sounds, like school bells or car horns. There was a mockingbird in Los Angeles, it was storied, that imitated the cycle of sounds emitted by car alarms.
Here in my New Orleans neighborhood, the mockingbird's song is everywhere, raining down from the mulberry and cypress trees, or from his perch on the telephone pole. Mockingbirds can remember up to two hundred different songs. All mockingbirds sing, but it is the male that is the virtuoso, the show-off. Male mockingbirds sing to attract a mate, and in breeding season, which runs from spring into early summer, they are singing to the ladies all day and all night long.
Mockingbirds are semi-monogamous; that is, they mate and then take care of the nesting eggs and fledglings as a couple. But one study showed that mated mockingbirds can't afford to take their relationships for granted - female mockingbirds are constantly under the influence of other males' songs, so their mates keeping singing sweet things to them, just as if they were spinning a Barry White LP on date night.
It is said to be unmated males - that is, bachelor mockingbirds - that sing all night long. This must be the case for the bird out in Bartholomew Street. Addled by hormones, he sings and sings, desperate for a lover, as loud as if he were holding up a boom-box to play beneath my bedroom window.