Rants from the Hill: Fall brings a new bird to the neighborhood

A Northern Mockingbird stops by, its varied song a reminder of October's restless nature.

 

Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

We nature writers do a lot of windy sermonizing about the value of staying put. We celebrate the decision to strike roots, encouraging readers to inhabit their home landscape with the kind of commitment and passion that might allow us to resist the transience that has characterized American culture since the first prairie schooner set sail for the sunset. And it is clear enough that in the West this frontier mentality has resulted in the sorts of problems you’d expect from folks who see their place as a stop on the way to some imagined better place just beyond the next ridge. I myself have staged a quiet rebellion against transience, digging in and making my stand out here in the remote Great Basin Desert. In fact, once the Amazon drones start delivering whiskey to these arid hinterlands, I may never go to town again.

The problem with this bioregional evangelizing can be summarized with a single word: October. When the wind picks up an autumnal chill and the nights turn cold, when the clock falls back an hour and the stove wood needs hauling before the snow flies, when the World Series comes to an end and the long winter looms, I experience an irresistible restlessness. In the opening lines of his wonderful poem, “How to Like It,” Stephen Dobyns captures perfectly the feeling I experience every October:

These are the first days of fall. The wind
at evening smells of roads still to be traveled,
while the sound of leaves blowing across the lawns
is like an unsettled feeling in the blood,
the desire to get in a car and just keep driving.

In praising rootedness we environmental writers have chosen our central metaphor from the plant world. But what if we derived our core concept from fauna rather than flora? We might then adopt a metaphor of movement or migration rather than rootedness, for everywhere around us we see animals passing through. October here in the high desert is the time when mule deer and pronghorn move downslope to avoid snow and mountain lions. Critters of every stripe are in high gear, driven by the shortening days to cache the supplies necessary to survive encroaching winter, while seasonal birds are stopping by on their way to warmer climes. Perhaps the most natural thing for me to do in October is not hunker down and set roots, but instead make contact with my animal self, get on the move, and light out for some unknown territory.

A rare visitor who has recently joined us on the Ranting Hill has me thinking about these issues of rootedness and transience. Although the Northern Mockingbird is so widely distributed as to be a regular neighbor to many westerners, in more than a decade out here we’d never before seen one. The first appearance of this remarkable guest occurred several weeks ago, when out of nowhere an unmistakable flash of white-barred wings appeared in the sagebrush. The bird has remained with us since then, and I wonder if it has come to make a home in this remote desert outpost or, as is more likely, it is just passing through on its way to a more hospitable place. For now, we are enjoying the bird in the same way we enjoy the final days of fall, with no certainty about how long the pleasure might last, and with a haunting feeling that it will soon be shut from our view as the doors of winter swing closed.

A Northern Mockingbird.

Unlike most of our desert birds, which are fairly retiring, the Ranting Hill mockingbird is gregarious, loquacious, almost fearless. It struts around on its tall, skinny legs, proudly holding its long tail up high behind it, acting like it owns the place. It perches on the lawn furniture and appears bothered when we head outside to check up on the mountains. It snags insects on the bare ground and in the low scrub, but also visits our woods rose and silver buffaloberry bushes to diversify its diet with fall fruits. 

The main thing the Ranting Hill mocker does is sing. First described by Linnaeus in 1758, the mockingbird’s modern scientific name is Mimus polyglottos, which means “many-tongued mimic.” It is a name the mockingbird richly deserves, as individual birds routinely have thirty or more songs, and in some cases even up to 200! While these many melodies most often mimic the songs of other birds, the mockingbird’s repertoire also includes mimicry of the sounds of insects, frogs and toads, and even mechanical noises. I first became aware of our visitor when I heard a bird song that was unfamiliar to me. Before I could solve the mystery of this new song I picked up a second tune I’d never heard before, and then a third. If only one new bird had appeared, many new songs had arrived with it, as if a flock of exotics had come to our home, like a visiting circus. Our mockingbird is a one-bird band, an avian karaoke machine, a multilingual messenger who has come from far lands, carrying all their songs with him. I’ve even tried to communicate with the bird by playing it blues tunes on the harmonica. While it hasn’t yet consented to jam with me, it does seem interested, and I’ve not given up trying.

In this recording from California, a mockingbird cycles through several melodies before beginning to imitate a group of crows perched nearby.

Because mockingbirds are now so common and so widely dispersed, many of us are unaware of how rare they once were. During the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, a flourishing caged-bird trade decimated populations of many songbirds in America, including the cardinal, indigo bunting, and that most impressive of singers, the mockingbird. A 1904 issue of Bird-lore, a publication of the Audubon Society, celebrated the passage of new legislation protecting non-game birds, while also reminding readers of what was at stake: “A few weeks since the [Audubon] Chairman visited the store of a bird dealer in New York, and in one large cage saw not less than sixty Mockingbirds, some of them so young that when the cage was approached the poor birds hopped to the wire netting fluttering their wings and opening their mouths to be fed.”

Bird-Lore's motto? A bird in the bush is worth two in the hand. In this issue, the Audubon Society detailed the splendid legislative efforts intended to save more birds from the caged bird trade.

The most famous American to keep a mockingbird as a pet was Thomas Jefferson. In November, 1772, Jefferson purchased his first mockingbird from a slave for five shillings. At that time the wild mockingbirds that now grace the woods surrounding Monticello were still decades away from expanding their range to Virginia, and so the species was a true novelty. Jefferson would go on to own at least four mockingbirds, several of which were able to mimic the woodland birds of Virginia and also sing American and Scottish songs. In 1784 Jefferson even took a mockingbird with him to France and back, a trip during which the bird learned not only to sing French songs, but also to imitate the creaking of the timbers on the ship that carried it across the broad Atlantic. Jefferson also has the distinction of being the first U.S. President to keep a pet in the White House. His companion mockingbird, Dick, not only lived in the presidential mansion but in fact had free range within it. Jefferson routinely left Dick’s cage open so he could fly around, perch on the president’s shoulder while he worked, even sing duets with Jefferson as he played the violin. Jefferson’s appreciation for this unique species is apparent in his suggestion to a friend that he should “[teach] all the children to venerate [the mockingbird] as a superior being in the form of a bird.”

Jefferson’s idea that the mockingbird is “a superior being in the form of a bird” is also present in many Native American cultures. The Cherokee embraced mockingbird as the embodiment of cleverness and intelligence, while Hopi and other Pueblo peoples told stories in which the bird was the bringer of language who taught the people to speak. Further west, Maricopa Indians believed that dreaming of mockingbird was a sign that the dreamer would soon receive special powers. Shasta Indian culture considered the bird a sacred guardian of the dead, while Papago and Pima folklore figured mockingbird as a mediator whose song functions as a bridge between the human and animal worlds. 

The most prominent reference to the bird in Anglo culture appears in Harper Lee’s 1960 classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, a book much beloved by our twelve-year-old daughter, Hannah, as well as by her Mom and Dad. In the novel, Atticus Finch tells his kids that “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” When Scout, the young girl who is the novel’s narrator, asks her neighbor, Miss Maudie, for clarification, this is the reply she receives: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

I like to think of the Ranting Hill mockingbird as being in a kind of temporary residency, the way a visiting writer, painter, or musician might be. This bird has come from elsewhere to warble its unfamiliar tunes, and perhaps also to gather things: insects, berries, western meadowlark song, this bittersweet, late-season, low-angle shaft of high desert sunlight. I suspect that this remarkable bird, whose appearance here is unprecedented and unaccountable, will soon be moving on. A messenger between seasons and between worlds, the mockingbird is a transient whose existence is rooted in the air, a fleeting gift of autumn that makes its stand on wings.