JP History: The Arboretum Mocker

August 14, 2008
By

John Ruch

JP was home to famously talented bird

Northern mockingbirds can be found all around Jamaica Plain, displaying their famous skill at imitating the songs of other birds. One in Brookside has spent the summer mimicking car alarms.

But 90 years ago, mockingbirds were rare immigrants in JP. One of those pioneers staked his claim in Arnold Arboretum and became the legendary Arboretum Mocker—then and now the mocking-est mockingbird ever recorded.

The Mocker’s repertoire of imitations included 91 calls and songs from 58 different species. He mimicked hawks and crows, pheasants and cuckoos, ducks and chickens—even frogs and crickets.

His astonishing talent would have been lost to history without careful, admiring observations by Horace W. Wright, a JP naturalist who spent hours watching the bird during its 1914-1920 residency.

“[The Mocker] certainly displays very wonderful powers of mimicry and self[-]training,” Wright wrote in a journal article that made the bird famous.

The Mocker’s world champion status still earns him citations in today’s bird books. His ability has been lauded in the New York Times and the Smithsonian Institution’s bulletin.

Of course, the imitation ability of the average mockingbird is still impressive. Some other birds have even more amazing mimicking skills, such as parrots imitating human speech and lyrebirds that repeat the sound of chainsaws felling distant trees in their own forest homes.

These abilities have always interested scientists. But the most basic question is why birds make calls and songs in the first place. Most of them do not imitate other species.

Prof. Bruce Byers, an expert in songbird songs at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said that the origin of the songs is still mysterious, but the basic uses of them are obvious: threatening enemies away from the bird’s territory and attracting mates. Basically, they are ways to show off.

It is even more mysterious why and how some birds, like mockingbirds, imitate other species. The evidence is thin, Byers said.

Mimicry could be a way to do the same thing as normal birdsong, only better. A mockingbird could not be not only scaring away enemies, but doing so in their own imitated language. They could also be padding their mating-song repertoire to impress the girls (and human observers), the way a rock musician might learn new guitar solos or a rapper might memorize new rhymes. (In songbirds, mimicry is only done by the males of the species.)

Byers noted that there is not always an adaptive “reason” for every behavior. Mimicry could “simply be a side effect” of the imitation instinct that all birds use to learn their songs from adult birds—just as humans learn to talk from their parents. In fact, songbirds have become a hot topic in research about the development of human speech.

Despite all of this scientific interest, one reason the Arboretum Mocker may still be world champion is that nobody is counting mockingbird calls anymore.

“Publishing detailed accounts of the singing of individual birds was the kind of thing that early 20th century ornithologists did, but that kind of ornithology has (unfortunately) long since gone out of fashion,” Byers said in an e-mail.
‘Phenomenal ability’

Wright, who apparently was a reverend living at 82 Myrtle St., was one of those early 20th century ornithologists. He contributed many articles about New England birds to “The Auk,” the journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union, often citing JP observations.

All the same, his interest in local mockingbirds did not originally involve their mimicry. His goal was to prove that the then-rare birds were spreading into New England as permanent settlers.

The first mockingbird he saw in JP was in early 1903 on “Landen’s Lane” (possibly a typo for “Louder’s Lane”). It soon moved to the arboretum. Over the next several years, more mockingbirds moved into the neighborhood’s parks, including around Jamaica Pond.

This rarity is the only reason anybody noticed the Arboretum Mocker in the first place. Its first known sighting was Nov. 25, 1914, as reported by Julia Carter, secretary to the arboretum’s famous first director, Charles Sprague Sargent. Carter recorded unusual bird sightings she heard about in her diary.

The Mocker made its home near the small ponds in the arboretum, sometimes venturing outside the Forest Hills gate to feast on its favorite food, Siberian crab apples.

Wright came across the Mocker in 1915 and quickly realized it was a rarity among rarities.

“This Mockingbird’s repertoire is very extensive,” he later wrote in a journal article. “It has increased since the first season of his singing. He has developed into a Mocker exclusively, not seeming to sing at all the song of [his own] species.”

The Mocker’s song list was not only large, but included sounds from other rare birds. One observer later wrote that the repertoire demonstrated a “phenomenal ability to acquire and remember songs.”

Some of the Mocker’s imitations were of Southern birds, suggesting the Mocker may have been born there. Others were of migratory birds that only visit here briefly, suggesting the Mocker had an extraordinary ability to learn songs quickly and remember them a long time. (It was considered impressive that the Mocker imitated the cardinal—another bird common in JP today but rare at the time.)

Sometimes the Mocker apparently imitated flight behaviors, too. It was once seen turning somersaults in the air, possibly in imitation of the tumbler pigeon.

Another unusual behavior was that the Mocker remained “celibate,” as Wright put it. Perhaps by necessity as an uncommon bird, the Mocker appeared to remain a bachelor, not nesting with a female.

Wright wondered whether this solitude inspired the Mocker to imitate more than usual for his own entertainment. “If so, he is a most philosophical bird and merits admiration for his resourcefulness as well as his great achievements,” Wright mused.

Wright and other birdwatchers knew the bird was earning a place in history. One of them, Charles Whittle of Cambridge, wrote in “The Auk” in 1922 that the Mocker was already a “more than locally celebrated songster…whose reputation for vocal ability promises to rival that of any bird of this race yet recorded.”

In fact, that sense of history is what led Whittle to sound a note of caution about Mocker observations. He pointed out that only 33 of the Mocker’s sounds had been confirmed by observers other than Wright. But, Whittle acknowledged, Wright was the most careful observer and appeared to be reliable.

Wright clearly spent a lot of time with the Mocker over five years, becoming familiar with his habits and favorite perches. In later years, the Mocker took to singing on the park border near the Arborway, despite being drowned out by what was already a steady stream of traffic.

“He seemed to like the constantly varying companionship of the passing cars with their occupants, who, however, knew nothing of the Mocker’s presence in their rapid passing by,” Wright wrote.

Wright wrote in detail about the Mocker’s ability to survive the harsh winters of the era. It was evidence that mockingbirds indeed could expand into New England. But his concern for the Mocker’s welfare is easy to read between the lines.

The Mocker’s fate is shrouded in mystery. What is clear is that another mockingbird—a female—finally showed up in 1920. Sightings of the Mocker grew rare after that.

Wright sounded a hopeful note, suggesting that the two mockingbirds mated and went off to build a nest elsewhere, possibly hatching chicks that shared their father’s remarkable ability to mimic.

Whittle was not so sure, saying confirmed reports suggested that the two birds stayed away from each other in separate territories. He believed that some of Wright’s later observations of the Mocker—where the bird was, unusually, not singing—were actually the new female.

In any case, the last confirmed sighting of the Mocker was July 10, 1920—a few weeks after the death of Horace Wright.

Sources: “Additional Data Regarding the Famous Arnold Arboretum Mockingbird,” Charles L. Whittle, “The Auk” 1922 39:496; “The Arboretum Mocker,” RememberJamaicaPlain.blogspot.com; Prof. Bruce Byers, UMass Amherst; Prof. Gisela Kaplan, University of New England, Australia; “The Life of Birds” (1998), BBC; “The Mockingbird,” Robin W. Doughty; “The Mockingbird in the Boston Region and in New England and Canada,” Horace W. Wright, “The Auk” 1921 38:382. Sandra Storey contributed to this article.

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