The meadowlarks of my youth had their own dialect; their songs still resonate in my head.
When I visit my brother at our childhood home in Montgomery County, their melodious tune is reinforced.
I recently noticed that the meadowlarks I hear in Bedford County have a slightly different accent.
Apparently, it’s not my imagination. Several studies have shown that songbirds of the same species may have different dialects depending on their geographical area.
So, like people, birds learn to mimic their parents and neighbors.
I started thinking about this when Michael and I stumbled upon a birder in North Carolina who said northern mockingbirds don’t actually mimic other birds so much as they are taught songs by their parents.
In one case, he read, a set of mockingbirds had learned the song of a bird that had been extinct for years. While I could not confirm that, I did learn that our understanding of mockingbird songs is changing.
Once believed to mimic the birds around them, new evidence suggests they are taught songs by their parents, which would lend credence to their imitation of a long-extinct bird.
Mockingbirds sing a lot. Both females and males sing, and they can be heard any time of the day or night.
A mockingbird outside your window at night can become an annoyance; I once chased one off with a broom.
Their singing is not only loud, it’s diverse. Mockingbirds string together series of repeated phrases, some of which seem to imitate other birds. A male may have several hundred phrases in his repertoire.
Although most bird species only learn songs during a critical period in their youth, mockingbirds have long been considered open-ended learners — meaning they learn new songs throughout their lives.
Parrots, marsh wrens and European starlings are considered open-ended learners. The lyrebird of Australia, which can imitate about 20 others species, now mimics human-produced sounds perfectly, including, sadly, a chainsaw.
Mockingbirds, however, have shown no such inclination.
According to a spring 2016 issue of Living Bird magazine, Dave Gammon, a biology professor at Elon University in North Carolina, found that mockingbirds only mimic birds whose songs are similar in pitch and rhythm to their own.
Gammon analyzed his recordings of campus mockingbirds and found that they most often mimicked the Carolina wren, tufted titmouse, blue jay, northern cardinal and eastern bluebird. They never mimicked some other species, including the mourning dove and chipping sparrow.
As a follow-up, he broadcast eight new songs from four outdoor speakers on campus for two hours a day for six months. Half were recordings of birds that don’t live in North Carolina and half were computer-generated.
Gammon expected that the campus mockingbirds would imitate some of the new songs similar to theirs.
They didn’t. He found not a single imitation of any of the new songs. Looking at his results, he began to wonder whether mockingbirds are truly open-ended learners.
While that puzzle is still unresolved, it makes me want to listen more closely to the mockingbird — without a broom.
Shannon Brennan is a Central Virginia Master Naturalist, a Lynchburg Tree Steward and a volunteer for the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club and the James River Association. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.