Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at at time.

Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at a time.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Mockingbirds are Texas symbols, musical composers, fighter pilots

The mockingbird (the northern mockingbird, that is) is the state bird of Texas.

They’re also the fiercest fighter pilots I know.

Walking into III Corps Headquarters at Fort Hood one morning back when I worked for the U.S. Army, I witnessed one going after a young captain with a vengeance. Apparently, the bird had a nest nearby and that captain got a little close for the mama bird’s comfort. She wasted no time letting him know.

With apologies to the officer, I have to say…y’all…it was funny.

Mockingbirds are fearless. They don’t care who you are or where you came from, if you get on their turf, they’re gonna defend it and try to take you out in the process.

Every spring, I perform at a renaissance festival at which there’s a bird of prey show. Every spring, I watch the Harris hawk get pestered by one very brazen little mockingbird. She won’t go after the falcons; she’s no dummy. But she’ll take on the hawks. That’s courage.

I’ve got a mockingbird in my yard who strafes my cat every time there’s a new brood. Salome’ likes to roll over on her back and play dead, just waiting for one to get close enough for her to grab. She’s gotten her furry belly pecked a time or two for her trouble. If you’ve not witnessed a cat and a mockingbird go toe to toe, grab a class of iced tea and pull up a chair on your porch; you’re in for a real show. The bird-to-cat/cat-to-bird chittering and cussing alone is high entertainment.

My father, ever the conservationist, often found baby mockingbirds that had fallen out of their nests. He’d get a ladder, climb up and put the baby back, usually with the mama bird trying to take out his hairline.

Mockingbirds are songbirds and they warble a lovely tune, albeit not entirely of their own composition; hence the epithet “mocking.” The birds mimic the songs of other songbirds and fashion them into a medley. Each imitation is repeated about three times before the next tune starts. Quite a few birds have a repertoire of up to 30 songs. Not even most Nashville country and western artists can boast that record.

It also has been known to mimic insects, frogs and the occasional mechanical noise.

Creativity knows no boundaries.

The mockingbird isn’t terribly flashy in its appearance, though it is rather pretty. Ol’ mimus polyglottos, as the avian is known to bird biologists, is about ten inches long, has light gray-brown plumage and a pale underbelly. The wings and long tail are darker. And there is a look in the bird’s eyes that says, “bring it on.”

The speculation about the bird being adopted as a state symbol in 1927 is that its song is the most beautiful of all songbird tunes. I think it’s the bird’s courage. As I said earlier, this is a bird willing to take on other creatures more than twice its size. And it’s a bird well known to our fellow Southerners; it’s the state bird for Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas. Southern writer, Harper Lee, wrote one of the most important literary works of the 20th Century dealing with racism, To Kill a Mockingbird, which eventually became a film. In the movie, Atticus Finch explains to his children the responsibility of owning a gun:

“I remember when my daddy gave me that gun. He told me that I should never point it at anything in the house; and that he'd rather I'd shoot at tin cans in the backyard,” Finch said. “But he said that sooner or later he supposed the temptation to go after birds would be too much, and that I could shoot all the blue jays I wanted - if I could hit 'em; but to remember it was a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

“Why?” Jem, his son, asked.

“Well, I reckon because mockingbirds don't do anything but make music for us to enjoy,” Finch replied. “They don't eat people's gardens, don't nest in the corncrib, they don't do one thing but just sing their hearts out for us.”

Students of the book have said the mockingbird represents all that is beautiful, since it’s a songbird, but I think that’s selling the critter a little short.

I think the bird also represents what it means to stand up against the impossible. Like the mockingbird, Finch, defense attorney for a man accused of a crime he did not commit, stands up to a threat much larger than himself: an angry mob outside the jail in which Finch’s client, Tom Robinson, is held. In the courtroom and the street, he stands up against intolerance and stupidity, in spite of the massive loss that follows. He’s outweighed and outnumbered…and yet, he fights for Tom Robinson because it’s the right thing to do.

Lee never tried to explain or interpret her story. She once said of the book, “Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct…that is the heritage of all Southerners.”

And all Americans.

Not a bad reputation—or heritage--for one feisty little bird to have.