Bird Mimics Can Be Deceiving

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    Bird Mimics Can Be Deceiving

    It looked as though the Dublin football match would have to be stopped. The game just couldn’t continue with two referees blowing identical-sounding whistles. The official referee was blowing his whistle at the proper times, but the whistle of a mysterious, unseen “official” was sounding at all the wrong times.

    Fortunately for the players and spectators, the unofficial whistle-blower was discovered to be a starling perched in a nearby tree! The bird was chased away, and the game continued.

    Beyond any doubt, the starling is Britain’s best bird mimic. Starlings can reproduce several birdcalls, including those of sea gulls, woodpeckers, partridges, pheasants, two kinds of owls, and a domestic chicken laying an egg. And talented starlings have imitated the sounds of a telephone ringing, the tinkling of a bicycle bell, errand boys whistling in the streets, the clicking of a gate, the yapping of young puppies, and the grating sound of a garage door being opened. In each case, listeners were completely taken in until the culprit was spotted on a nearby roof or tree branch.

    It is even said that in London, England, just after the end of World War II, people were consternated in one suburb by a starling innocently but perfectly mimicking the dreaded chugging roar of a falling bomb, or doodlebug.

    Although scientists have studied the subject extensively, they still don’t know why only some birds have a talent for first-rate mimicry. Such a convincing and baffling ability must have some value to the bird itself, but so far no one knows what it is.

    What is known is that only certain bird species are mimics, and only certain individuals of these species, regardless of size, make good performers.

    Birds that mimic sounds are quite different from bird “talkers” kept as pets, such as parrots, mynahs, and jackdaws. Talkers imitate the vocal or mechanical sounds produced by human beings that they hear around them.

    The talents of natural bird mimics living in the wild, far from human influence, must be regarded as a purely natural habit.

    In the United States, the mockingbird can readily mimic a variety of birdcalls, plus other sounds like those made by cars, tractors, and rusty gate hinges.

    The catbird, which is related to the mockingbird, can mimic the calls of several birds. But it gets its name from its most singular call, one that is hardly distinguishable from the sound of a cat’s mewing!

    The famed Australian lyrebird, thought by some to be the finest bird mimic of them all, can accurately reproduce as many as thirty birdcalls.

    Other birds that show a remarkable talent for mimicry are the blackcap, magpie, blackbird, marsh warbler, and reed warbler; some of these birds imitate each other’s songs.

    What the value of its mimicry is to the bird, naturalists cannot discover. But it is obvious that bird mimics enjoy playing with sounds—as indeed most human beings do—and like us, they get a peculiarly rewarding satisfaction out of doing it.

    [illustration] Illustrated by Shauna Mooney