Tag Archives: Northern Mockingbird

Many pint-sized birds pack plenty of pugnacious attitude

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • A male red-winged blackbird perches in an alert stance, ready to curb intrusions by other birds into his territory.

A trio of American crows (I’m not sure if a mere three individuals represent a murder of crows) flew past my porch on a recent morning. They were immediately bombarded by the resident male red-winged blackbird. The blackbird dove onto the back of the first crow, then doubled back and attacked the second crow. The third crow, perhaps seeing what happened to the others, perched and cawed for a couple of moments. Mistakenly thinking the coast now clear, the third crow set out to join its companions. The blackbird immediately attacked again, just as ferociously as in the previous two incidents.

Since arriving in April, the red-winged blackbirds have ruled the roost around the cattail-bordered fish pond. At the start of the nesting season, they even swooped at me when I got too close before we eventually settled into an uneasy truce. At home and at other locations, I have watched these blackbird attack everything from turkey vultures and great blue herons to white-tailed deer and cats.

Simply put, red-winged blackbird brook no interlopers. The observations of the blackbird with the crows got me to thinking of other birds known for their pugnacious natures. In no particular order, here are some bantam weight candidates for the title of “Most Pugnacious Bird.”

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The scientific name of the Eastern kingbird is Tyranus tyranus, a good indicator of this bird’s haughty attitude toward other birds.

Eastern kingbird

The Eastern kingbird, a member of a large family of birds known as “tyrant flycatchers,” is famous for displaying an outsized attitude toward larger birds. The scientific name for this bird is Tyrannus tyrannus, which succinctly summarizes the kingbird’s belligerent attitude toward other birds. Mated pairs of kingbirds work together to drive intruders out of their territory. Kingbirds will launch themselves into battle against much larger foes, including red-tailed hawks, American crows and blue jays. Crows and jays are well-known for robbing the nests of other birds, so the aggression of kingbirds for these corvids is quite justified.

Photo by AdrianKirby/Pixabay.com • The merlin is a pint-sized falcon with plenty of feisty spirit. These raptors do not hesitate to duel with birds many times their size.


Merlins have a reputation for being pint-sized punks among raptors. The merlin is a member of the falcon family, which also includes birds like the American kestrel and peregrine falcon. I once saw a merlin harassing a turkey vulture, diving on the much larger but less agile bird until the vulture finally veered in another direction. This observation reinforces the merlin’s reputation for aggressively meeting incursions into its territory by other raptors. The merlin has long been associated with the forests of North America and Eurasia, but in recent decades it has proven capable of adapting to life in urban landscapes.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Blue-gray gnatcatchers are noisy and, quite often, quarrelsome birds that don’t let their small size get in the way of attempting to intimidate other birds.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher

Blue-gray gnatcatchers are noisy, scolding songbirds at the best of times. They are also determined to protect their nesting territories at all costs and will attack much larger birds. They don’t hesitate to call for reinforcements when warranted. They will drum up a brigade of feisty, feathered fighters to repel intrusions by potential predators too large for a gnatcatcher and its mate to handle on their own. In North America, the gnatcatcher ranks in size with birds like kinglets and hummingbirds. Despite its diminutive status, the gnatcatcher acknowledges no superiors.

Photo by BlenderTimer/Pixabay.com • In a family of rather insufferable bullies, the rufous hummingbird stands out as particularly pugnacious.

Rufous hummingbird

In a family known for cantankerous behavior, one hummingbird stands out. In North America, the rufous hummingbird has a reputation for having a bad temper. These tiny birds with huge metabolisms must compete fiercely for resources, but they often appear go out of their way to attack other hummingbirds. The rufous hummingbird ranges along North America’s Pacific Coast and the Rockies as far north as Alaska and western Canada. A migration quirk occasionally brings these hummingbirds to Northeast Tennessee during fall and early winter.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Northern mockingbird is zealous in defending its territory from other mockingbirds or any other intruders, including humans, cats, dogs, snakes and almost any other real or imagined threat.

Northern mockingbird

I’m not sure every person who has had a Northern mockingbird nest in their yard or garden would describe the experience as a pleasant one. It’s not without cause that the mockingbird is often described as ruthless, aggressive and pugnacious in defense of its nest and young. These birds don’t hesitate to attack humans or their pets, such as cats and dogs, if any wander too far into their territory. In fact, mockingbirds appear to take positive glee in forcing intruders to flee. Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon captured a dramatic moment when he painted a pair of mockingbirds defending its nest from a rattlesnake. The painting is also an early example of the ties between humans and mockingbirds. The nest is located in a hanging basket of yellow flowers. Even during Audubon’s time, mockingbirds had quietly adjusted to human activity and had deigned to allow us into their daily lives. It’s just best not to step out of line. Mockingbirds have ways of dealing with pushy people.


Indomitable spirit allows Northern mockingbird to rule the roost


When John James Audubon painted this famous depiction of mockingbirds, he added an attacking rattlesnake to the scene to demonstrate the fearless nature of the mockingbird in defending its young.

We know some birds by their colorful feathers and others by a distinctive song. The Northern mockingbird pushes itself into our awareness not so much from brilliant plumage or a unique song — this bird actually copies the songs of other birds — but from an indomitable spirit all out of proportion to its size.

The mockingbird is a relatively common bird in most of the region, but it has always been rather scarce bird at my home. These birds don’t usually visit my yard and gardens outside of late fall and early winter. Close relatives like the gray catbird and brown thrasher, however, are usually fairly common birds in spring, summer and fall. I’ve even had thrashers visit during the winter months, as well as an unexpected December sighting of a catbird last year.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        The Northern mockingbird is the official state bird for five southern states, in part due to the bird’s assertive nature and spirited attitude.

The mockingbird, as well as the catbird and thrasher, belongs to a group of birds known as the “mimic thrushes.” The group provides a convenient umbrella for some related songbirds capable of imitating the songs of other birds. Mimidae, the Latin root for “mimic,” provides the scientific name for the family, which includes mockingbirds and the New World catbirds, as well as thrashers. The Northern mockingbird is best known for the ability to mimic, but relatives like the gray catbird and brown thrasher are also talented mimics.

The varied repertoire of a mockingbird has always impressed human listeners. Laura C. Martin notes in her book, The Folklore of Birds, that the Choctaw Indians referred to the mockingbird as hushi balbaha, or “the bird that speaks a foreign language.”


The Galapagos Mockingbird documented by Charles Darwin.

Mockingbirds will break into song — their own and those of other birds — at almost any time of day or night. Both sexes sing. Biologists have speculated that there might not be a limit to the songs mockingbirds can learn to imitate, while other experts believe that the mockingbird’s mimicry might not quite be so extensive.

The Northern mockingbird is the only mockingbird found in North America, but Central America, South America and some of the Caribbean islands are also home to 16 other species of mockingbirds. Several endemic species of mockingbirds also inhabit some of the islands in the Galápagos archipelago.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                  Hungry young mockingbirds await a tidbit from a parent.

Some of these other mockingbirds include brown-backed mockingbird, white-banded mockingbird, blue mockingbird, blue-and-white mockingbird, chalk-browed mockingbird, Bahama mockingbird and tropical mockingbird.

Anyone with much experience with mockingbirds would probably agree that these birds are bold, courageous and sometimes fiercely assertive. The aggression of the mockingbird was on full display when I once observed a pair of these birds attempting to defend a berry-laden holly tree from a voracious flock of cedar waxwings. Badly outnumbered, the two mockingbirds would successfully chase off several waxwings only for another dozen or so waxwings to take the place of their vanquished flock mates. Although the flock of waxwings consisted of about 80 individual birds, the mockingbird pair put up a valiant struggle tom defend the food represented by those holly berries.


Photo by Ken Thomas                                           A mockingbird keeps an alert watch on its surroundings.

Nesting mockingbirds are also very defensive of both their nest and young. They will attack anything that moves in the vicinity, including domestic cats and dogs, as well as humans. I recently observed a young red-tailed hawk perched in a tree. Crows and blue jays were screaming in protest at the large raptor’s presence, but the only bird to actually make contact with the hawk was a single mockingbird that swiped the back of the hawk’s head in a persuasive effort to convince the raptor to move along.

It’s that feisty attitude that impresses most people about mockingbirds. Even people who don’t like this bird — some consider it a bully — usually give grudging credit that the bird doesn’t lack in courage or spirit.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                          The mockingbird gets its name from the ability to mimic the songs of many other species of birds.


Perhaps that’s the reason five states — Tennessee, Texas, Florida, Arkansas and Mississippi — have made the mockingbird their official state bird. The southern makeup of these states reflects that the mockingbird has always been a bird of the southern United States even as it has expanded its range northward and westward.

The mockingbird was designated the state bird by the Tennessee General Assembly in 1933. The mockingbird’s designation had been decided earlier that same year in an election conducted by the Tennessee Ornithological Society. Florida and Texas both selected the mockingbird in 1927, Arkansas in 1929, and Mississippi in 1944. The mockingbird was once the official state bird of South Carolina but was replaced by the Carolina wren in 1948.

If the mockingbird had a slogan, it might be something like “don’t mess with me.” The mockingbird in your yard or garden considers the territory its own little kingdom. Intruders beware.