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Known for their melodious song, northern mockingbirds were so popular as pets in the 19th century that they almost went extinct! Find out why so many people fell in love with the northern mockingbird—including President Thomas Jefferson—and listen to its beautiful sound.
What Does a Northern Mockingbird Look Like?
Northern mockingbirds are medium-sized birds with an average wingspan of 12 to 14 inches, though the males can grow slightly larger. They have long legs as well as a comparatively long tail. Both genders sport gray to brown backs with lighter, almost white, underbellies.
White stripes border the upper and lower layers of their wing feathers, and the stripes are even more noticeable when their wings are outstretched.
Northern mockingbirds molt during less stressful or active periods of time—like after nesting in the spring or before migration for the winter (though not all northern mockingbirds choose to migrate)—but their feathers maintain the same coloration and pattern after molting.
Why Are They Called Northern Mockingbirds?
While there are plenty of other types of mockingbirds, the “northern” mockingbird is referred to as such because it is only found in North America.
The scientific name of the northern mockingbird is Mimus polyglottos, which translates from Latin to mean “many-tongued mimic.” They garnered this name through their ability to imitate practically any sound, but they usually imitate the songs of other birds, singing for hours on end.
Northern mockingbirds have been known to learn over 200 songs in their lifetimes, and the male ones, in particular, use their song to attract females during mating season in the springtime. Singing a wide variety of songs shows the female mockingbird that a male has been around the block, so to speak! The more songs he knows, the more worldly and experienced he is.
Due to the bird’s beautiful, complex song, the northern mockingbird was once a caged bird. The nestlings were poached right out of nests and sold in Philadelphia and other cities so that the population was almost decimated. Luckily, the passing of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918 outlawed keeping wild birds captive and reversed the downward trend in the northern mockingbird population.
What is the Northern Mockingbird’s Song
Because northern mockingbirds mimic the songs of other birds, they are more identifiable by their singing pattern and voice rather than the songs themselves. Interestingly, male northern mockingbirds also seem to have two sets of songs—one set for spring and one for fall. Female mockingbirds sing, too, but not as much in the springtime. That’s mating season when they sit back and listen to the males.
Northern mockingbirds sing in phrases, which they repeat two to six times before shifting to a new one. These can last for 20 seconds or longer and sound primarily like whistling. They are also capable of mimicking dog barks, musical instruments, car alarms, and sirens. When under threat, they make harsher, screeching sounds to ward off intruders.
Northern mockingbirds are omnivores that prefer to eat insects in the summer but switch to fruit in the fall and winter (when the insects hide underground). Insect-wise, they like ants, bees, beetles, butterflies, caterpillars, earthworms, grasshoppers, moths, and wasps, all of which they catch by running around on the ground for the most part.
You can look for northern mockingbirds in your urban or suburban backyard year-round. As their name suggests, northern mockingbirds can be found throughout Mexico, the United States, and southern parts of Canada. They can survive in a wide range of habitats, and some choose to migrate south for the winter. But most tough it out by fluffing up their feathers and switching to a fruit-based diet.
They like to be both heard AND seen, perching on shrubs or fences to sing their song proudly. To make your backyard more appealing to mockingbirds, ensure you have an open area; they like short grasses they can see over and forage within, not long grasses or bare ground. Plant fruiting trees or bushes for them to feast on, including mulberry or hawthorn trees or blackberry brambles. Read more about the best shrubs and trees to attract songbirds.
Northern Mockingbird Nests and Babies
Northern mockingbirds prefer to nest in shrubs and trees, relatively low to the ground —3 to 10 feet high—though they have been known to nest higher. The male picks multiple sites and builds several nests for the female to choose from, which are open cups composed of dead twigs. Once the female has chosen one, she completes the team effort of its construction by lining the nest with weeds, grasses, rootlets, leaves, moss, animal hair, and even trash (plastic/aluminum foil/cigarette filters).
She will then lay a clutch of 2 to 6 eggs, which incubate for 12 to 13 days and then nestle for the same amount of time. Commonly, the female will leave one brood for the male to care for in favor of a new nest, where she will lay another clutch of eggs. Northern mockingbirds are known to produce 2 to 3 broods per mating season, which begins by late winter in the south.
They are also monogamous, mating for life, and the male northern mockingbirds are fiercely protective of their mates. In fact, northern mockingbirds have a keen sense of whether or not someone or something poses a threat. A 2023 study out of the University of Florida found that female northern mockingbirds can distinguish among familiar humans, suggesting that northern mockingbirds are smarter and more discerning than originally thought.
How Long Do Northern Mockingbirds Live?
On average, northern mockingbirds live eight years in the wild and can live up to 20 years in captivity.
What is the Spiritual Meaning of the Mockingbird?
In Harper Lee’s 1960 book, To Kill a Mockingbird, mockingbirds are used as a symbol of innocence and beauty. However, northern mockingbirds have held other significance to Indigenous Americans for many years. The Cherokee people refer to northern mockingbirds as Cencontlatolly, which means “four-hundred tongues,” and they used to feed mockingbird heads to their children to increase their intelligence.
The Hopi and other Pueblo tribes believe that Mockingbirds taught people to speak and gave them many languages. Mockingbirds could also pass messages between people and gods. And in Shasta Indian mythology, the mockingbird watches over the dead.
While they might keep you up all night with their singing, northern mockingbirds have been honored as the state bird of Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas. And it’s no wonder: This highly intelligent creature is truly a virtuoso of the avian world! Follow the repetitive pattern of its song, and see if you can spot one in your own backyard.
Have you heard the sound of a northern mockingbird? Add your comments below. Be sure to let us know where you live or where you’ve heard this bird’s call before!
And click here to listen to the sounds of other birds!
Lucy Mutz is a writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She has a Bachelor's degree from Vassar College, and in her free time, she enjoys painting, cooking, and asking strangers if she can pet their dogs. Read More from Lucy Mutz