Door to Nature: The Mimics of the Bird World

Spring is when we look forward to returning songbirds and revel in the males’ territorial music as they claim nesting areas and try to attract females. The sandhill cranes can be heard from more than a quarter mile away if conditions are favorable.

Smaller songbirds require less territory and are not as loud. Black-capped chickadees, robins and northern cardinals are singing more now to attract mates and set their breeding grounds. We can expect new migrating birds to arrive by late April as the weather warms up.

One group that my late husband, Roy, and I enjoyed hearing is the mimics. Brown thrashers and catbirds are the two most common, but occasionally northern mockingbirds – a species that’s more abundant in the South – have been found in northeastern Wisconsin. 

Other species that are known to imitate birds and unusual sounds are the blue jay, crow and yellow-breasted chat. The chat is another bird rarely seen in our part of the state, and it is an uncommon summer resident even in the southern part of Wisconsin.

Roy holds a brown thrasher that he had just banded. It’s showing its rusty-brown plumage, yellow eye and long tail. Photo by Charlotte Lukes.

Brown thrashers are usually the earliest of the mimic migrants to arrive in Door County. The first date in my records is April 5, and the latest arrival date is May 5. Gray catbirds are usually seen a few weeks later, with the earliest date of April 20. In 2016, the first catbird wasn’t reported until May 13.

The brown thrasher is known as the “country singer” because that is its favorite habitat. They are shy birds, but occasionally you can hear their calls from the top of a tall tree. Nesting is done in shrubby thickets, hedgerows, brushy fields and woodland borders either on the ground, in a shrub or vine cluster, or as high as 12 feet up in a tree.

Each summer I see one or two catbirds and thrashers enjoying the bird bath in my front yard. It is situated on the ground at the edge of a shrubby area so the birds can dash for cover if a predator arrives in the woods.

As I drive in farm country near my home, I might get a quick glimpse of a brown thrasher flying across the road. When observed in good light, the rusty-brown plumage and long tail are easily seen. The bird is larger than any similarly colored species in that environment.

Gray catbirds are also shy, but I remember when Roy and I would be leading The Ridges Sanctuary’s early-morning bird excursions, and we would hear one emit its catlike “mew” call. Roy asked the participants to watch, and he would make squeaking noises on the back of his hand. All of a sudden, there was the catbird peeking out of the bush to see what was making that sound.

Brown thrashers generally repeat each phrase of their song twice, whereas catbirds – with a thinner, more catlike sound – sing each phrase only once. Mockingbirds are known to repeat a phrase four or more times before going on to the next one. 

Roy’s first Door County mockingbird was seen between Baileys Harbor and Egg Harbor in June 1965.  He found one for several years along County A and thought they might even be nesting there. Three were found on a pre-convention trip to Rock Island in May during the 1975 WSO event held at Sevastopol School.

One summer, we heard a long concert as a mockingbird imitated calls of northern birds and then sang some of several Southern species as well, including a tufted titmouse and chuck-will’s-widow, a relative of the whip-poor-will.

There were only five confirmed nestings of the mockingbird during the first canvassing for the Atlas of Breeding Birds in Wisconsin. In fact, our excellent birding friend Kevin Swagel found a breeding pair in the country east of Sturgeon Bay. It will be interesting to see the results from the second Atlas work that was done from 2015 to 2020. A book will be published with that information.

One bird that can be a mimic and might fool people is the nonnative European starling. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had a starling as a pet for three years, and a theme, credited to the singing of his bird, occurs in the final movement of the Piano Concerto in G Major, K. 453.

Captive starlings have been found to mimic many sounds, including human words, music, throat clearing, coughing, laughing, kissing, barking dogs and keys rattling. Unfortunately for their owners, starlings have a bad habit of vocalizing during the wee hours of the night.

Be on the lookout for brown thrashers returning to their county homelands as we near the end of April, and listen for their energetic songs on a peaceful morning of back-country birdwatching.