Night singer

March 25, 1994|By Helen J. Ails

WHAT clucks like a chicken, meows like a cat, whistles like a traffic cop and squeaks like a mouse? He's been known to utter "cuckoo," "twit" and "cheerio." He stays up all night.

I had the good fortune to run into this fellow after I moved to Maryland from northern Illinois, a place he apparently avoids because of its long, frigid winters.

Our meeting took place one night in spring when I couldn't sleep. Like me, he's often up and about between midnight and 4. In the soft glow of the street lamp, I spotted him sitting in a tree close to my bedroom window.

His singing drew my eyes to his high perch. In the darkness he was a silhouette, but as dawn broke, he became a nondescript gray bird that I later learned was a mockingbird. He was announcing to the world that from this day forward, he owned this territory. He announced it for about five hours, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

I mentioned this to my neighbor a few days later and received a surprisingly scathing reaction. "I'd wring his scrawny little neck if I could get hold of him," she said. "Not only does he keep me awake at night, but he dive-bombs my cat! The poor thing is afraid to venture into the yard!" This tirade shut me up. I was about to go on about his wonderful voice. He knew more melodies than Liberace.

While most birds are awake during the day and sleep at night, mockingbirds perform most of their audible courtship in the dark of night. I wonder when he does sleep, but perhaps, like me, he grabs a bird nap when he can. Maybe that's why I like him so much and feel a sort of kinship. I know he can be a scrapper, pugnacious enough to drive away other birds and even small pets.

But there's this other, charming side that more than makes up for his physical plainness.

I think he has a lot of fun in life. He likes to pretend he's another species, imitating the calls of more than 30 kinds of birds, not to mention a sheep, a cat and a piece of farm machinery. He likes human company and often builds his nest in a tree along a busy street.

I have a feeling that I am in the minority when I say I love him. Perhaps this "American nightingale" has only one asset -- his voice. He is such a wonderfully sweet singer that I forgive all his other faults. On moonlit nights he bursts forth with such sweet music that I lie in bed and feel he's performing just for me. I become entranced by the beauty and virtuosity of his melodies.

I once heard that Abraham Lincoln's favorite song was "Listen to the Mockingbird." I don't know if that's true. I only know that on cloudy spring nights, when my feathered friend takes time off for a snooze, I really miss him.

Helen J. Ails writes from Joppa.

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