In “Magpie to the Morning,” Neko Case invokes a Mockingbird singing a Whip-poor-will’s song. It’s a lovely play on the standard image of these two birds, both of which have long been referenced in human literature and song. (For more, see my entry on Case’s song.)
Given the decline of Whip-poor-will populations, combined with the fact that most people encounter Norther Mockingbirds singing in suburban habitats that teach the birds the songs of common birds and human technologies, I’m left wondering how often today’s Mockingbirds sing the lonesome cry of a Whip-poor-will.
Historically, however, we’ve indeed encountered Mockingbirds’ covering Whip-poor-wills. In an 1870 letter to the scientific journal Nature, a William Taylor dismisses the possibility of non-human animal language. Among the non-human animals he references is the Northern Mockingbird.
The mocking-bird mimics the song of the whip-poor-will, the creaking of the wheelbarrow, the lowing of the ox, and the pattering of the rain ; but does it ever, like the Greeks, Romans, and Gaels, speak of the ox by the name bo ; or, like us, speak of the rain as pattering ; …
Four decades later, the Mockingbird continued to mimic Whip-poor-wills, at least according to a report published in The Auk. In “Notes on a Massachusetts Mockingbird” (1911), S. Waldo Bailey reports of a Mockingbird that sings the songs of at least 20 northern birds, including the Whip-poor-will. Bailey describes the Mockingbird’s imitation as “with spiteful accent,” a curious enough phrase.
These are Mockingbirds I want to hear — pattering, creaking, lowing, and Whip-poor-willing. It leaves me wondering about the changing repertoire of Mockingbirds, particularly as bird populations and the technological landscape both change. I can’t imagine a Mockingbird with the low of an ox or creek of a wheelbarrow, but I have heard them screeching like car alarms and beeping like a car being unlocked by fob.
And I wonder, too, where today a Mockingbird still sings, “Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will.” I suppose where you find that mimic, you’d find the Whip-poor-will himself.