|A juvenile mockingbird makes high-pitched begging calls. Photo by J.J. Meyer|
It’s nearing the end of the breeding season, though many birds are still feeding their families away from the nest.
I’ve been watching a pair of Northern mockingbirds with two fledglings for the past week or so. The youngsters’ downy feathers make them appear slightly larger than the parents. I can hear the fledglings’ relentless high-pitched begging calls coming from the honeysuckle in our back yard. With two large mouths to feed, the parents fly in and out of those bushes continuously throughout the day.
Mockingbirds have two to three broods, or hatchings, each season. They typically begin in mid-February and are finished by early September. Females incubate the eggs and provide most of the nestling care, though both sexes share in feeding once the babies are out of the nest. Babies fledge, or leave the nest, at 12 to 14 days when they’re still flightless. Until they can fly, these young birds are extremely vulnerable to predators, including cats.
Mockingbirds don’t typically sing this time of year. The adults I’ve been watching have been relatively silent except for the shrieking alarm calls they make when a crow or jay ventures too close to their fledglings. Mockingbirds can be very aggressive when defending their territory, nest and young. The parents often join together to attack intruders.
These medium-size songbirds pack a lot of attitude in their 10-inch-long frame. Their plumage is gray or gray-brown overall and their bellies pale gray. In flight, they flash their white wing patches and white outer tail feathers. Other identifying features include long legs and tails, short slightly curved black bills and reddish-brown eyes with a dark eyeline. Juveniles have streaky gray breasts and bright yellow gapes – the name for the interior of the mouth and edges of the bill.
Mockingbirds are common backyard birds and year-round residents in Orange County. They’re insect and fruit eaters, so they don’t visit seed feeders. But they eat suet and frequently visit the large suet cylinder in my yard. They also appear when I step outside to feed mealworms to the black phoebes. I’ve learned that there’s less competition for the worms when I toss a few on the ground for the mockingbirds first, then toss worms one at a time in the air for the black phoebes, which are able to catch them on the fly.
When the breeding season is over, the birds will begin molting, a systematic process of replacing feathers. Birds tend to become secretive during this time, vocalizing infrequently and hiding in the vegetation to evade predators.
Both male and female mockingbirds will begin singing again in September and continue until early November. Males sing two distinct repertoires: one reserved for spring and another for fall. The female also sings in the fall, although usually more quietly than the male.