For many of us, the thing we most enjoy about birds is their song. Their unique calls and sounds help us to identify them before they’re seen, and their beautiful melodies make up the soundtrack to many mornings.
Birds sound for many different reasons: they may call to signal a warning to would-be intruders in their territories, announce their arrival at a food source, attract a mate, communicate with their fledglings, or any number of other reasons.
Their different vocalizations are as varied as their reasons for sounding them, and as unique as their plumages. While some birds, such as the Chirping Sparrow, may have very few calls and songs, others, like the House Wren, may have dozens or hundreds. From squeaks and chirps to rattles and warbles, the many sounds of the bird world can be fascinating to experience.
Perhaps those birds with the most intriguing vocalizations are those that specialize in imitating the sounds around them, both from birds and non-animal sources. While the most commonly known avian mimics maybe be of the parrot variety (a bird named “Prudle”, a male African gray, is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having a vocabulary of more than 1,000 words), avid bird enthusiasts know that there are several excellent mimics that can be found regularly at backyard feeders.
The Northern Mockingbird:
The Northern Mockingbird may be the first that comes to mind for many. In fact, its scientific name, Mimus polyglottos, actually means “many tongued.” The Mockingbird is known to imitate the calls of no less than 50 other birds, alongside noises from other animals and even machines, in addition to its own unique songs.
Blue Jay / Steller’s Jay:
While often thought of as noisy—sometimes to the point of nuisance—two members of the Jay family, the Blue Jay and the Steller’s Jay, are other common backyard feeders that specialize in mimicry. Both often use imitation sounds to intimidate other birds, and have even been know to mimic hawks.
For another common backyard visitor, the Gray Catbird, what it lacks in physical appearance is made up for with its song. The Catbird’s basic call is rather raspy, but its song is truly beautiful. It incorporates its own wide variety of song patterns with imitations from other birds and animals around it. Individual songs can last up to 10 minutes, with very little repetition of notes when compared to other birds’ songs.
Greg Budney, audio curator for the Macaulay Library, actually witnessed a gray catbird very accurately mimicking a Pacific Chorus Frog, among a wide variety of birds found in northern California. You can get a listen for yourself in his short video.
Of all the birds known for their ability to imitate other noises, perhaps none is more famous than the Lyrebird of Central Australia. While not a species we are lucky enough to enjoy in our backyards, it can be seen at a number of zoos across the country.
Like the Catbird, the Lyrebird is not especially colorful, although its long tail plumes are stunning. For the Lyrebird, its forte is truly its song, which the male uses to attract a female. With remarkable accuracy, it can mimic the sounds of other birds, many times doing so well enough that they are able to fool their muse. But what is truly remarkable is their ability to mimic the noises of just about anything, from machines to passing traffic heard passing by.
In this clip, a Lyrebird can be seen mimicking a number of birds, the sound of a toy gun, as well as convincingly reproducing the sounds of R2D2…that’s my guess and I’m sticking to it.