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Post A Mockingbird Quacks (from Gary Moore)
Created by John Eipper on 08/01/19 4:15 AM

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A Mockingbird Quacks (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA, 08/01/19 4:15 am)

Gary Moore writes:

Yesterday morning, on a bare twig at the top of my sycamore tree, a mockingbird was quacking. Late summer finds these magnificent singers tending to fall silent, their torrent of melodies disappearing from the sun-chastened neighborhood. But the bird cycles are cryptic. For instance, the sharp calls of bluejays disappeared from this area a couple of summers ago, so completely that dark theories among backyard enthusiasts began to say, confidently, that Round-Up weed killer must have crept up and gotten the bluejays, too. But then the next summer they were back, as abundant and audible as ever, so the Round-up must have weakened, while the bluejays issued few press releases.

As to the mockingbirds, as early as last fall there were signs of something strange, or wrong. Typically in the fall they start singing again, here and there, not very enthusiastically--but the one that suddenly drew my attention back then was a landmark. At first I thought I was hearing an entirely new bird species, with an unknown song. But, going outside and peering into the leaves, I was surprised to see it was a mockingbird--quacking.

Now, I don't mean it was imitating a duck--though they do do that. The fantastic fidelity of mockingbird audio imitation is really the subject of this post, and it's true that while pouring out pitch-perfect knock-offs of Carolina wrens, chickadees, starlings, bluebirds, robins, and our sneaky friends the bluejays--as well as even crows--the local choir of mockingbirds can crank out renditions of the mallards that gabble on the pond, so faithfully that it sounds like a joke. But that's not what I mean by quacking. Onomatopoeia can only go so far. That strange, forlorn bird, first met last fall, was monotonously producing, over and over, a sort of swallowed yawp, a tiny bit like the quacking that crows sometimes indulge--or the shooop of bullets going underwater in a spy movie with a scuba-diving hero, if that makes any sense. Moreover, this mockingbird did nothing else--no wrens, no five or six different robin variations, no woodpecker calls deftly shaped for ventriloquism so as to sound far away--none of that. What was with this bird? I was relieved, several months later, when the more normal song torrents started returning, all the familiar imitations again. I figured the quacker must have gotten the hang of it, or to have been replaced by smarter birds, in ways as mysterious as the bluejay cycle.

But then yesterday, nearly a year later, the sound was back. Had that same poor bird merely wandered off into exile for months, always making the same monotonous mutter? Or, more ominously, had this quacking thing somehow spread to other birds, which now also failed to sing--or even to make the customary mockingbird punctuations--but instead voiced only that crestfallen, quizzical burp, seeming almost to translate as a mumbled, "Aw shucks"?

So here's the crux. The gigantic mystery here is not the outrider anomaly in the data, embodied by the quacker's dissent, but instead it's in the flabbergasting norm that the outrider points up--a factor in everyday life so violative of what we think we know about behavior that we might as well be spouting Round-up theories.

What is a mockingbird? How can the brain of just one species behave so completely like a tape recorder, equipped not only with Record button, but Playback? My brain can't do that. Most bird brains can't seem to do that. Even an African grey parrot, if slowly trained to reproduce the supposed thousand human words, is never going to be mistaken for the actual human voice of, say, a Donald Trump or a Nancy Pelosi. But when a mockingbird does a wren, there's really not much way to know it's not an honest-to-God wren, except simply to wait a moment, and see if that putative wren in the bushes quickly turns into a flicker and then even a sharp-shinned hawk--that is, reproducing the cries of those birds, too, with suave virtuosity in seemingly endless combinations and riffs?

How can Mimus polyglottus do this (the Aztecs called them cenzontl, the Myriad-Voices), while the narrowly defined bird family Mimidae, containing mockingbirds but extending to similar-looking catbirds and thrashers, can also do this, but to a less spectacular extent?

What is the hole in our ordinary assumptions that the lone quacker, by sudden omission, points up? A morbid researcher somewhere is said have proved that mockingbird abilities require role-modeling: when raised in isolation, not hearing other birds as templates while growing up, they are said not to sing. So does this suggest our lone quacker as an outcast of some sort? But how could that bird possibly have failed to hear the symphony of other calls all around? The sadder thought struck me. Is it deaf?

Answers? Neurology, in its failure to be able to look into a mockingbird brain and crisply, scientifically tell us just which lobe--which synapse, which branch--contains the hidden tape recorder, would here seem to be almost medievally blank.

JE comments:  I have a biologist colleague at Adrian College, Ben Pawlisch, who studies bird brains.  (Their tiny brains are infinitely more complex than the insult would suggest.)  I've always been more intrigued by the built-in GPS of homing pigeons, but mockingbirds have an equally fascinating talent.  I'll forward this post to Ben for comment.

I just learned that the mockingbird is exclusive to the Americas.  No wonder Old Worlders can't identify much with Atticus Finch...

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  • Macaws of Caracas (José Ignacio Soler, Venezuela 08/02/19 3:57 AM)
    Gary Moore's post about birds and their cryptic bird cycles, brains, sounds and colors, inspired me to tell the story of the guacamayas (macaws in English) in Caracas.

    In this city there are plenty of mountain forests and vegetation, and it has the rare privilege of having an extensive number of native bird species, regionally important for their variety and exoticism. But the guacamayas are exceptional. Contrary to what you might expect, these South America tropical birds are originally from jungles and rain forest regions, from Panama to Paraguay, but over the last 30 years or so these colorful wild birds are present in hundreds of thousands in Caracas, and almost have become tamed pets for many people, although they preserve their freedom and wild state.

    It is said that an Italian immigrant in the 1980s, Vitorio Poggi, was once followed and stalked by two guacamayas when he was riding his motorcycle. It is not known what eventually happened to those birds, but he enthusiastically started to raise them by starting with a young couple and freeing them when mature. In a few years 14 different species populated the whole city in the thousands, in an exceptional adaption process.

    They are very friendly colorful animals, yellow, red, blue and green, noisy and garish, 40-50 cm long, with cyclical habits. They mate for life. They have become so accustomed to humans that individual birds come regularly to windows, terraces and gardens to visit and look for food early in the morning and late in the afternoon. People used to give them fruit or sunflower seeds directly from their hands. My wife use to feed the same couple very often.

    They have become a beautiful special part of this city's environment.

    JE comments:  José Ignacio Soler appended these images.  What majestic birds.  The Caracas guacamayas (try to say that five times, fast) must be descended from someone's pets.  As feral or quasi-feral birds, do they learn to talk like their domesticated (household) counterparts?

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    • Macaws in Guatemala (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA 08/03/19 5:25 AM)

      Gary Moore writes:

      The beautiful story from José Ignacio Soler (August 2) about colorful macaws
      adapting to life in urban Caracas, and flourishing there, moved me for a
      distant reason.

      Decades ago when I was hiking through the Central American
      jungles--at that time so lush and enormous that they looked impenetrable--I found myself in a straggling little hamlet where the government of Guatemala
      had subsidized some ragged settlers to come in from more populous areas,
      to live in makeshifts that were little more than palm-thatch lean-tos in the mud.
      There I lifted my eyes, as out of surrounding walls of vegetation a flock of big
      macaws came flying overhead, like rainbow B-52s soaring in formation. But I also
      saw that a settler, a gaunt, lanky, talkative individual, was similarly impressed--for he was raising to his shoulder a little .22 rifle. "They make good eating,"
      he said officiously, proud of his mastery of the wilds. A two-legged species of
      fire ant seemed to have been loosed in the forest, gobbling its way through.

      Over the decades since, I've seen a vast tundra of bulldozed pastures replace
      what had seemed endless and impenetrable. A dark nook in my brain has not
      wanted to check on the statistics about macaws. But now I see, as with many
      impending apocalypses, the doom wasn't quite perfect. The invisible force
      of life played a wild card. Nacho has shown us that the macaws--at least in
      his city--found a way not to disappear.

      (And maybe I should have known. The idiot with the .22 missed.)

      JE comments:  Gary Moore touched on a possibility I didn't want to think about, but here it is:  have the hungry Caraqueños begun to eat the city's macaws?  I noted with some concern when José Ignacio Soler wrote that the people of Caracas "used to" feed their guacamayas.  When times get tough, pets can be the first to suffer. 


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  • More on Mockingbirds (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA 08/02/19 4:30 AM)

    Gary Moore writes:

    JE's considerate suggestion that he forward my post about mockingbirds
    to his avian neurology colleague has me eagerly awaiting the results.

    Meantime, re his other comments:

    1) The distribution of mockingbirds: I would swear I once heard, and saw,
    a mockingbird singing in Spain. Much farther away, the Australian Liar Bird--no joke--seems to fill the same niche.

    2) Near the beginning of the mockingbird post I tried an experimental rhetorical
    transition, fearing it might be flatly incomprehensible. John seemed to say yes it was,
    and its disappearance from the published version now enables humans,
    and not just mockingbirds, to read it.

    3) Through all these years, I'd never before thought of the overtone in
    Atticus "Finch." I wonder if the wellsprings of To Kill a Mockingbird (the evidence
    does point to a furtive committee of sorts, even if Truman's been overstated)
    articulated consciously the deepest level of saying that the South, despite its torrid
    law of the jungle, is really basically good--as seen in its luxuriant natural beauty,
    exemplified by its birds, which are exemplified most luxuriantly by the mysterious
    brilliance of the mockingbird.

    JE comments:   I would have preferred a more humane version of Harper Lee's classic:  To Rescue a Mockingbird.  We don't have mockingbirds or macaws at WAIS HQ, but a blue heron frequently visits our dock and yard.  In honor of Bird Week at WAIS, let's see a photo.  (The image is from several weeks ago, but s/he's out there fishing as I write these lines.)

    Gary, your Truman reference flew over my head.  This is especially embarrassing for a former Missourian.  Please explain...?

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    • WAIS Bird Week, Continued: Mockingbirds in Northern California (Edward Jajko, USA 08/03/19 5:07 AM)
      Apropos of mockingbirds, and jays as well, here in Northern California I rejoice when mockingbirds nest near our house. I love hearing their singing and would swear that they make things up in addition to copying what they hear. I love their midnight serenades. As for California jays, which lack the crest of the Eastern blue jay, I chase them out of the yard and away from the feeder. They are vicious, raucous, and mortal enemies of the mockingbird.

      The unfortunately much-parodied song "Listen to the Mocking Bird" dates from 1855. It was a favorite of one A. Lincoln.

      JE comments:  Blue jays are probably the most aggressive of the small birds found in the US, although the hummingbird is even more bellicose.  Good thing they only weigh four or five grams.  The Aztec god of war, Huitzilopochtli, takes his name from the hummingbird...with reason.

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    • Bird Week Wrap-Up: Venezuela's Guacharacas (José Ignacio Soler, Venezuela 08/04/19 3:53 AM)
      John E. asked whether the macaws of Caracas have become a possible source of food for "hungry Caraqueños." Despite the critical situation of the people, fortunately and apparently from their friendly behavior it does not appear that the birds are being used to feed the population. If guacamayas were being hunted, they would likely be much more evasive and unfriendly.

      Besides there is another tasty kind of wild bird, la guacharaca (I do not know the English word), very abundant in the country and there are plenty in Caracas. They are the size of a chicken, not very colorful. Most are dark brown with markings of pale red, blue and grey. They are very noisy as well, particularly at 6 or 7 in the morning. They eat almost every fruit and seed and easily get into domesticated bird food. They can be hunted very easily or even domesticated in stockyards.

      According to natives from the jungle (the Wuaraos tribe) their song sounds like "Amanece, amanece!" (It's dawn!) in their language, but most certain their name comes from the onomatopoeia of the repetitive sound when singing.

      The peculiarity about these birds is that also they mate for life, live in family groups and care for their babies for a long time. We had had the same family in our garden for many years, which is not rare if they do not sense danger. They are very loyal and might follow you everywhere, and it is said that can be very physically protective and aggressive if they feel you are threatened. Fortunately I have never been in such a situation to prove it.

      I attach a picture.

      JE comments:  Tastes just like chicken?  I believe they are known as chachalacas in English, and belong to the galliform order, as do chickens and turkeys.  "Galliform" literally means "cock-/rooster-like."

      See how much we've learned during WAIS Bird Week '19?

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