It’s nesting season. Beware. Dive-bombing mockingbirds are in the air.
That sudden fluttering of wings at your ear, that peck on the skull? Florida’s plucky state bird is warding off potential predators and sees you as a threat.
“They usually mount a sneak attack to the back of your head,” said Miami bird expert Brian Rapoza. “They like to hit and run. Sometimes they even work in a mob.”
If Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie “The Birds” gave you nightmares, then April in a mockingbird habitat can be disconcerting. But don’t panic. Tippy Hedren would find mockingbird sorties to be mere annoyances. Consider these encounters with our feathered friends to be a rite of spring.
Allen Smith, who lives in Palmetto Bay, is both entertained and harassed by the mockingbirds nesting in his backyard. They squabble with squirrels and steal moss from his orchids to feather their nest, which they've built in a purple and white Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow bush. They sing with gusto early in the morning — even imitating the sound of Smith’s cell phone.
“When the parents go off to find food my wife and I will sneak out to look at the babies, but if they catch us anywhere near the nest they start yelling and attacking — they do not mess around,” said Smith after playing golf at the Granada Golf Course. He said he was nipped in the back of the head when leaving Books and Books in Coral Gables. “It's that time of year. They are really intelligent, really aggressive birds.”
“They can be a nuisance but I’ve been nipped many times and they’ve never drawn blood,” said Rapoza, author of “Florida Birding” who was blitzed last week in his Kendall neighborhood. “If you don’t have a lot of hair like me their beaks can feel quite sharp, but they know not to go for your eyes because then you can fend them off.
“They just want you to get the message, which is, ‘Get away from my nest.’”
The northern mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos – Latin for “many-tongued mimic” and also the state bird of Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi – is comfortable living in areas dense with humans. Unlike other species that have fled disappearing habitats, mockingbirds have adapted well to overdevelopment. Suburbia, with its manicured lawns and shrubs, is ideal for foraging for insects, fruits and berries.
“I have mockingbirds in my backyard in Kendale Lakes and I see them in the little ornamental bushes by the pool in my complex,” said Rapoza, who is careful to give them a wide berth. “Most birds will try to find a quiet spot but mockingbirds aren’t picky about where they build their nest and are naturally aggressive.”
At this time of year, when bougainvilleas are in their manic phase and gardenias are blooming, the gray and white-trimmed, long-tailed, garrulous and melodic mockingbird becomes an overly protective parent, wary of cats, hawks and people that might harm its babies. They’re everywhere, from parks to parking lots.
Biologists say the bird learns to recognize intruders. Peter G. Merritt, formerly a Ph.D. student at the University of Miami, studied mockingbirds on campus for his dissertation and found that they recognized him season after season and were able to pick him out of a group to harass him.
Anyone walking or jogging near a tree or bush where there’s a nest – mail carriers and dogs on leashes are vulnerable – can become a target of a swooping mockingbird.
Rapoza, field trip coordinator for the Tropical Audubon Society and environmental science teacher at MAST Academy, recommends wearing a hat or using an umbrella if you’re worried about attacks, but the main thing to do is give the birds space and avoid the trees where they are nesting.
“So many people are unaware of the birds that are all around you,” he said. “Be aware of your surroundings. If you see mockingbirds, let them do their thing in peace.”
Mockingbirds are loud, too, but can carry a tune. They are not only uncanny mimics but talented singers. They can imitate other bird calls as well as frogs, squirrels, sirens, squeaky doors and horns. There are stories of mockingbirds mimicking alarm clocks early in the morning.
Most can master 200 songs in a few months. The more elaborate the repertoire, the more males can impress females while mating. They often repeat phrases three times per sequence.
“The female will assume the male with the fanciest songs is the most genetically fit,” Rapoza said.
Lovesick unmated males sing late into the night. If you’re having a bout of insomnia, listen for his serenade.
And don’t always blame mockingbirds for fly-bys. Watch out for bowtail grackles, chattering in large flocks from their perch on utility wires, Rapoza said.
“They are the glossy black birds with long tails,” he said. “They can be really obnoxious.”
We’re taking the pulse of South Florida, the things that delight us, or drive us crazy. What do you love — or hate — about living here? Let Linda Robertson know. lrobertson@MiamiHerald.com