Friday, May 21, 2010

Listen to the Mocking Bird

Mockingbird photo from U.S Fish and Wildlife

Late in April we began noticing a grey-brown bird of medium size with white breast and tail feathers.  Something about the bird joggled a memory but I couldn't name it, couldn't locate my bird book.  Efforts to pin down the bird and its' friends as they bounced about in the green of the meadow were too much for my binoculars. We turned our attentions to the many colorful cardinals and bluebirds perched in the maples and the sweetgum tree.  A pair of cardinals nested in a tall shrub outside the dining room window and their sweet melodious calls have filled the air.

Several times, hearing what purported to be the cardinals, my ear caught other notes.  I told J. "I think we have mockingbirds in the dooryard."
About 10 days ago, during an interval when it didn't rain [!] I worked in the flower borders, the chirp of robins, the trill of the cardinals making background music.
Suddenly a burst of song floated on the air from a nearby branch.  The song went on--and on---the cardinal's bubbly trills, its "chirping" sound, then the call of a robin, followed by the whistle of a blackbird--repeated again in sequence.

I listened with joy, laughter just below the surface.
We have since seen the mockingbirds and heard their happy repetoire a number of times.
They amaze me. Since the cats sit behind the screen door by the hour, bird-watching avidly, I expect to hear the mockingbirds adding a Siamese "Me--yowww" to their ditty.

As a child I learned the sentimental old song, "LIsten to the Mockingbird."
It is one of those mournful tales of a dead young sweetheart, but it is set to a rollicking tune, one that was familiar at square dances when I was a teen.
The caller, blind Johnny Blackburn, belted out the figures of the dance to the old tune as fiddles sawed and the piano planked out the rythym.  Each couple in turn pranced through the motions, finishing with a "swing" in the center of the square --and the caller's sly, "Kiss her in the center, if you dare."

I'm dreaming now of Hally, sweet Hally, sweet Hally;
I'm dreaming now of Hally,
For the thought of her is one that never dies:

Shes sleeping in the valley, the valley, the valley
She's sleeping in the valley,
And the mocking bird is singing where she lies.
Listen to the mocking bird,
Listen to the mocking bird,
The mocking bird still singing o'er her grave;
Listen to the mocking bird,
Listen to the mocking bird,
Still singing where the weeping willows wave.

From Wikipedia:  "Listen to the Mocking Bird (1855) is an American folk song from the mid-19th century. The lyrics were by Septimus Winner, under the pseudonym "Alice Hawthorne", and the music was by Richard Milburn.

It is a mournful tale, with the singer dreaming of his sweetheart, who is dead and buried, with the mockingbird, whose song the couple once enjoyed, now singing over her grave. The melody is moderately lively though. It was one of the most popular ballads of the 19th century and sold over twenty million copies of sheet music.
It was popular during the American Civil War and was used as marching music. It was a particular favorite of Abraham Lincoln who said it was, "as sincere as the laughter of a little girl at play."


  1. Ah, as in "To Kill a . . ." that sort of Mockingbird. I didn't know they were such good mimics, but obviously that's how their name came about. Something else that you didn't have in Wyoming I assume. Interesting about that song. I will have to see if I can find it played on You Tube so I get the tune of it.

    How is your new garden coming along? Are you still getting surprises growing through?

  2. Our mocking birds disappeared for a while but I have seen -- and heard some this year. Ours love to sing at night, which can be a bit difficult to endure after the first hour or two.

  3. BB: If you can find a clip of the song with Elton Britt as the vocalist, you'll hear it at its best. The tune is simple adn repeating, just like the bird's songs.
    No new surprises in the garden, but the magnolia tree is ready to bloom if the rain will stop for a day or two.

    Chris: Isn't it perverse how a sound that is merely "background noise" in the daytime so quickly becomes irritating when we want to sleep?
    I hoped to drift back into early dawn slumber a few weeks ago, but became aware of a Mourning Dove's call--over and over--not an unpleasant voice, but very monotonous.
    [Dear me, that spelling looks bad, but I've no idea where my dictionary has gotten to!]

  4. Oh, how well I remember those mockingbirds! They seem to have a bit of "temper" too...I've seen them "swoop" down and peck at our cat in years past!

    Was wondering if you've been to Bardstown, KY, yet to visit Stephen Foster's home? A lovely place and a wonderful drive there...

  5. Don't worry about your spelling. I've discovered Blogger can't spell either -- especially if you use an out of the ordinary word. I used 'accoutrement' today. Thought twice about using it but couldn't remember the simple word I should have used instead! (What a brain). Anyway, blogger said I was wrong in the spelling, but he will have to argue with the Oxford American dictionary!