My neighborhood, like most of the leafy central 'hoods of Tucson, is lousy with mockingbirds—mockingbirds singing all night from telephone poles and the tops of trees; mockingbirds fluttering up and looping around to show off their cool white wing patches; mockingbirds hopping around on their long, skinny black legs, flashing their wings and tails and tilting their sleek heads, scaring up bugs.
In spring, their noisy joie de vivre becomes inescapable. The lady who used to live next door told me with wonder one day that her aged mother, now dead, used to love to hear them sing. We both rolled our eyes. It was April, and standing in her front yard, we could barely hear ourselves talk.
The dense old pyracantha hedges around the neighborhood pool are particularly coveted nesting areas—you cannot walk by without noticing the gray-and-white action all around. The human hubbub at the pool seems to be no deterrent. Mockers don't mind living in the suburbs; like house sparrows and finches, mockers prefer a nicely improved neighborhood. Lots of cover, plenty of water and the general lawn-iness suits them, and they apparently see people and cars as no particular problem. They, after all, have wings.
Mockers may be domestic, but in spite anything Harper Lee might have said, they are not defenseless. Or sweet. On the contrary, they're notably valiant, even pugnacious and, in their way, tough. I've seen a thrasher drive a pair of them summarily off a perch without an argument—who'd want to get into it with a thrasher?—but I also once looked into the fierce, challenging eye of a healthy mocker guarding an obviously sick one on an alley wall. My dog and I got within maybe 2 feet, but the bird stood his ground and held my eye until we moved on, away from his helpless companion. While it's true that mockingbirds hurt no one, they'd damn well like you to think they might.
And they know their enemies. A couple of years ago, The New York Times reported that crows in a park in Seattle recognized individual scientists who had caught and banded them, and scolded them relentlessly when they dared to walk through the park months later. (See www.nytimes.com/2008/08/26/science/26crow.html.) Mockers are just as acute and unforgiving, as I realized last weekend.
On Saturday, I took my dog with me when I went to putz around in my community garden plot. The garden, which sits next to a section of hedge and is surrounded by a chain-link fence, is a focus of intense bird activity: lots of greenery, twice-daily drip irrigation, strawberries lying around, bugs—it's all happening, and sparrows, doves and mockers flutter up into the hedge and nearby trees every time somebody comes in, only to reoccupy the garden as soon as possible.
However, on this occasion, Fu was on the scene, and he's a dog who insists on ownership of any space he occupies. Plus, he was bored—"What? The stupid garden and not the park? You must be kidding"—and fell back on his usual pastime of rousting birds. (He'd rather hassle cats or squirrels, but he'll settle. Our backyard is cleared many, many times a day of all interlopers, right down to butterflies and carpenter bees.) A mockingbird didn't vacate the premises fast enough, so Fu lunged and woofed in his cheerful, bullying way.
The bird clearly took this personally, turning in midair and swooping back to hover over Fu and scold him in a buzzing screech. He kept it up until we left, stopping intermittently to go sit on the fence and glare and flick his tail, only to return to trying to drive Fu out while ignoring me completely.
The next morning, when we walked past the garden on our way to the park, the mocker spotted us coming and swooped in to sit on the top of the fence near the gate, teetering, one foot on the apex of one chain-link diamond, the other on the next, his black eyes fixed malevolently on Fu. No screeching this time—just the black, evil eye from on high. He was unmoving, implacable, slightly hunched. No banger on his corner tracking a thug from a rival gang could have exuded more visible hatred and menace.
So my dog now has an enemy who wants him dead dead dead. Fortunately, he only weighs a couple of ounces.