Northern Mockingbird In The Desert
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When we moved here a few years ago I was surprised to discover that Northern Mockingbirds had preceded us. This species is an extremely common sight in our former community in the suburbs of lushly green and humid Atlanta. Seeing mockingbirds in the middle of the desert came as a bit of a shock. They just seemed to be out of place.
But they are here, even if they are far less prominent than they are in the Southeast. A couple of weeks ago I photographed this individual while I was on one of my desert walks.
Northern Mockingbirds are members of the Mimid family of birds, a group of birds that are are known for their intricate songs and also for their tendency to weave the songs of other species into their own songs. Curve-billed Thrashers are also Mimids and in these parts they live in the same habitat as do mockingbirds.
Back in Atlanta it often seemed as if mockingbirds perched on every mailbox and street sign, they were that ubiquitous. They are an absolutely dominant species in the Southeast and in that part of the country their calls and antics are familiar. A southeastern mockingbird claims a territory for itself and announces its presence by singing loudly and constantly, while engaging in short, acrobatic, and sometimes almost comical flights. I used to watch these birds fly vertically 15 or 20 feet above their preferred perches while they sang, land on the same perches, and repeatedly engage in that behavior. Southeastern mockingbirds are also thoroughly urbanized. One could easily spot them in downtown Atlanta.
Here, their presence and behavior are different. I see them far less frequently — just occasionally as I go for my walks. The ones that I see tend to stay out of populated areas, preferring to reside in brushy terrain out in the desert. The local birds’ behavior is much more circumspect than that of their southeastern counterparts. Although mockingbirds claim territories here they don’t seem to announce them with nearly the verve and enthusiasm employed by southeastern mockingbirds.
What explains the cultural difference? I don’t know for sure but I can hazard a guess. In the Tucson area Cooper’s Hawks are major predators of songbirds including mockingbirds. Cooper’s Hawks have become an extremely common sight in this community, especially within Tucson’s urban limits. That contrasts significantly with Atlanta, where I very infrequently saw a Cooper’s Hawk. If you’re a songbird here, it doesn’t pay to loudly announce your presence with a flashy display of song and feathers, particularly within Tucson or its close in suburbs. One might as well say “here I am, come get me!” to the local Cooper’s Hawks. So, perhaps our local mockingbirds have learned to be more circumspect in their behavior and to stay well out in the desert as a means of survival.
Images made with a Canon 5Diii, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 400, f8 @ 1/2000.