Singing the mockingbird blues

It’s August; the weather is hot and dry and the plants need a little extra TLC. Hot peppers, cucumbers and apples continue to grow with alarming frequency, and there’s mulch that needs spreading. And what I am doing in the midst of all this summer glory? …cowering inside, unable to work in the garden thanks to a very protective pair of Northern Mockingbirds and their nest full of young ‘uns.

This story has unfolded over several weeks.

We had been seeing mockingbirds around the side yard for a while, and I began to suspect they had a nest in our mahonia bush, just outside the bathroom window. One day, working from home, my husband saw a very proud bird perching on the front porch showing off a green bean (plucked from the veggie garden, no doubt…) which we figured the bird was taking to a nest full of baby birds somewhere closeby.

Mockingbird with bean - NC Garden Gals

Mockingbird with a bean.

Out picking veggies and planting flowers last weekend, I heard one of the birds scolding loudly at me, a warning that I was somewhere close to the nest. On my way back into the house, I finally spotted the nest itself: in a dogwood tree smack in the middle of our front yard, right by the garden and the front door.

This mockingbird nest in a central tree in our front yard has the parent birds fiercely protective.

This mockingbird nest in a central tree in our front yard has the parent birds fiercely protective.

Next time I walked outside, giving a wide berth to this tree, I heard the scolding again. Next thing I knew, one of the mockingbirds was flying straight at my head! I felt just like the natural predators I’d studied in avian ecology–hawks and owls–who are routinely “mobbed” by groups of smaller birds in an attempt to drive the threatening raptor presence away. I screamed and ran in the house – I am a bird lover, but there is something deeply frightening about being dive-bombed. No wonder it has been a successful defense mechanism for small birds to evolve. If I’m subjected to enough of it, though, I suppose I could one day become as nonchalant as this guy.

So began a week of neglecting the garden…every time I ventured outdoors the mockingbirds (who had decided I was a threat, though my husband hasn’t gotten the same treatment) almost immediately flew at me. In spite of my frustration at not being able to work outside and share the space, they are fascinating creatures, well worth learning about:

Northern mockingbirds breed in spring and early summer. Their nests are cup-shaped and are made of twigs, cotton, dry leaves, stems, paper, grass and other organic material. The nests are built in shrubs and trees up to 50 feet above the ground (usually 6 to 10 feet off the ground).

The female lays two to six eggs (average 4 eggs). The eggs are about 24 mm long and 18 mm wide. They are blue or greenish with brown or reddish spots. Female mockingbirds incubate the eggs, males do not. The eggs hatch after 11 to 14 days. The chicks are helpless when they hatch. However, they grow quickly and can leave the nest after 10 to 12 days. When the chicks leave the nest, the male continues to feed them and teaches them to fly. The female begins building a new nest for the next brood of eggs. The fledglings become independent from their parents when they are 10 to 15 days old. They may begin breeding when they are one year old. Northern mockingbirds can raise 2 to 4 broods each year.

Females incubate the eggs, males do not. When the eggs hatch, the female and male both feed and protect the helpless chicks. After the chicks leave the nest, the female begins to build a new nest for a second brood. During this time, the male teaches the chicks to fly and feeds them.

-From the University of Michigan “Critter Catalog”

A delight came later this week, when the fledglings left the nest. One or two of them can be seen hopping about the yard, extending their wings in an awkward way and occasionally flapping a few feet. We got a great look at this through the front window. I suppose the dad is busy teaching the young ones how to do mockingbird things….I just hope, for their sake and mine, that mama chooses a spot a little further from my veggie garden to build her second nest of the year!

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