Mockingbird, Red and Blue
U2 may have advanced the theory that “midnight is where the day begins,” but most of the world’s songbirds don’t clock in till dawn. The famous exception is the nightingale. Unattached males will sing through the night to attract a mate, while males in general sing during the hour before sunrise as a chest-puffing exercise in defending their territory. Keats believed that the nightingale has never known “the weariness, the fever, and the fret” of groaning men. But singing all night for a mate and then continuing on to maintain your turf has to be a slog. The bird might as well be holding a boombox over its head.
As a resident of North America, I didn’t think much about the night part of nightingales until I heard birdsong at 2 a.m. It was strange to gradually register the lone trilling piercing through the temporary void of urban acoustics north of Boston. The solitary voice was both beautiful and sad. I knew it couldn’t be a nightingale—most of all because it sang like a mockingbird.
I was surprised to learn that male mockingbirds will sing all night for the same reasons as male nightingales—looking for a mate, asserting their territory. I wondered why I’d never heard a nighttime mockingbird before this, but then this was the first time I’d lived next to a park, urban mockingbird territory to stake out and defend with your last breath.
It wasn’t until years later, when I’d moved to Manhattan, that I encountered another night singer. I again lived near a park, and again it was just a one-night affair. I stayed up with him for a couple hours, hoping he’d score for his sake and mine. But again the bird’s solo, strung-together medleys made me sad. I lie there thinking of the tragic Michael Furey in Joyce’s story “The Dead.” I wondered who the singer had to protect his territory against—one other mockingbird or dozens waiting in the wings.
This is not how we’ve objectified birds—as stress pots—least of all the mockingbird. The great white father Atticus Finch warned against killing a mockingbird because it’s only here to serve us with song. With her laden metaphor, Harper Lee was channeling a sentimentality that went back generations in the South. It’s nothing if not ironic that the northern mockingbird is the state bird of Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, and previously South Carolina (which seceded from the Mockingbird union in 1948).
“Listen to the Mockingbird”—popular during the Civil War and often used as marching music—was Lincoln’s favorite song. This maudlin bit of trivia seems about right—the incongruously lively melody relaying how the singer dreams of his now dead-and-buried sweetheart because an incorrigible mockingbird continues to sing over her grave. (Good antebellum times!) But maybe the song’s bipolar nature is perfectly suited to the way the bird repeats phrases within the medleys it has cribbed from cardinals and house wrens and other birds. Bird as plagiarizer, as aggregator, somehow seems so modern. Maybe that’s why Aaron Sorkin felt compelled to readapt Lee’s novel for the stage last year.
The mockingbird as cultural touchstone on both sides of the Mason-Dixon is a lesson in commodification: Americans gave the bird a pass because we get something out of it (besides providing endless song, it’s a major bug-eater) and its flesh and feathers were not particularly desirable. It’s telling to compare this Peace of Utrecht vis-à-vis the mockingbird with how our forebears treated another native species—the passenger pigeon, once the most numerous bird on the continent if not the planet before being killed to extinction.
It’s hard to envision this species as individuals. Like the continent’s human native inhabitants, its orientation was collective. Passenger pigeons moved in phenomenal numbers—millions or even billions blackening the sky, like Trafalgar on steroids—and not a one striking out for the territories all by its lonesome. Unlike the single male mockingbird with his land spreading out so far and wide, passenger pigeons favored a tenement lifestyle of brooding in trees in dense forests.
Ectopistes migratorius was doomed by both plenitude and its engorged retail value in a capitalism-intoxicated century. They were tasty birds, but their species wasn’t killed off by subsistence hunting. After the Civil War, the continent-wide expansions of the telegraph and the railroad enabled a commercial pigeon industry to boom. Pigeon bloodthirst became national sport. They were shot while roosting in trees, bludgeoned with rakes and pitchforks, torched, blown up with explosives, and asphyxiated with burning sulfur. They were poisoned with whiskey-soaked corn.
Passenger pigeon massacres hit a crescendo in the 1880s, causing populations to plummet by the 1890s. Yet Americans only slaughtered the animals more intensely as their numbers dwindled. This seems to me the true definition of “wilding”—the fiction appropriated to demonize the Central Park 5. It’s hard to read descriptions of such wanton killing by so many (predominantly white) Americans without some spasm of muted terror—the terror of recognition that the targeted species could easily be human.
As species annihilator, the country shaped itself up with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. But by then the only pigeons left on the continent were immigrants—the street pigeons that descended from escaped domesticated rock doves brought to North America as pets in the early 1600s. Unlike the passenger pigeon done in by socialist proclivities, Columba livia domestica diversified its terrain, finding building ledges a nice substitute for sea cliffs. Consequently, like generations of poor urban immigrants and socialist pigeons outside America, they have done all right for themselves—adapting to urban life while being reviled by at least half the country.
Columba livia domestica is nobody’s state bird even though it is monogamous and fiercely protective in the nest; even though it is highly intelligent with a strong homing instinct (WWI messenger heroes!); even thought it gets along well with people. The pigeon is nobody’s state bird not just because it shits across cities but because it bears the label “nonnative” (a.k.a. “resident alien”). Per the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, “All wild birds (except pigeons, English sparrows, and starlings) are protected by federal and state laws. You may not trap, kill or possess protected species without federal and state permits.” Thus, you can’t kill a native mockingbird in 2019, but you can blast away immigrant pigeons with impunity.
At the end of May, when I heard another nighttime mockingbird in the park, I felt I could detect desperation in his song. He had to have been under a lot of pressure—not just the stress of finding a mate but of holding on to what nature said was rightfully his—Bennett Park in Washington Heights, real estate with no price tag.
Most songbirds learn all the tunes they’ll ever sing before they’re a year old. But you can throw anything at a mockingbird—frogs croaking, humans whistling, kittens meowing, doorbells ringing, and even the cascade of car alarms, which are themselves modeled after mockingbird medleys—and it will work it into its act of at least 39 songs. The bird is also fiercely protective of its fledges, attacking and remembering the humans it feels are threatening its nest. If it thinks you’re a threat, it will target you even if you change your clothes and wear a disguise.
These days northern mockingbirds are living more urban than rural. Urban mockingbirds recognize their breeding spots and return to city areas where they did well in previous years, whereas their numbers are declining in rural areas with the disappearance of pasturelands, especially in Florida. Given that these smart, highly adaptable birds are nowadays killing it in cities, you’d think the time had come to reclassify our native Mimus polyglottos as a Blue State bird.
Yes, you’d think . . . if it wasn’t for those hyper-territorial males—native and protected but chronically stressed out, staying up all night to keep their large, privileged tracts of land free from interlopers. Theirs is the Republican way of gated communities. If you wanted a bird to represent that part of our union that loves limitless capitalism and hates outsiders not like themselves, look no further. Donald Trump would approve—thinking big, keeping out competitors, being survivors.
Meanwhile, great numbers of unloved immigrant pigeons cluster on the ledges of buildings surrounding Bennett Park and on dead branches of one large tree. I always think of pigeons as “coming home to roost,” getting a great night’s sleep in their NO VACANCY dovecote hotels. They live together in intimate harmony, cooing and nestling wing to wing. Despite this, Americans would probably send every last bird the way of passenger pigeon if we could find an efficient way to do so without corpses.
The apposition of Native Mockingbird and Immigrant Pigeon seems a good metaphor for America before the 2020 presidential election. It would be nice to believe in a future of Pax avianus, but crowding into the frame is that scene at the end of Hitchcock’s The Birds, where Tippi Hedren carries caged lovebirds as winged killers of various species roost as far as the eye can see, temporarily suppressing their predatorial frenzy for human flesh. It’s not a question of whether the center will hold, but of whether it ever existed. §