Bird Watcher's General Store

Flashing Mockingbirds - 05/19/06


Dear Bird Folks,

There is a mockingbird in our yard that has been exhibiting an odd behavior. As it walks across our lawn, it suddenly stops, opens up its wings and exposes its bold white wing-bars. The bird then closes its wings up again and continues on as if nothing has ever happened, only to flash those white wing-bars again a short time later. It all seems very mechanical. Is there a reason for this flashing? If anyone can explain this to me, you can.

-Jake, Pittsburgh, PA

Come on Jake,

What makes you think that I am an expert on "flashing"? Heck, I don't even own a trench coat. In fact, the only time that I've ever come close to flashing anybody was when I fell at the beach last year and accidentally ripped a hole in the knee of my bathing suit. The whole town is still talking about that day.

When we think of mockingbirds, we think of their singing. It's widely known that mockingbirds can imitate hundreds of sounds. Those sounds include the calls of other birds, mammals, insects, and mechanical sounds, such as the lovely "beep, beep, beep" of the backup alarm on a dump truck. Thank goodness we get to hear more of that sound.

Now, according to you, Jake, in addition to being super songsters, mockers have some kind of flashing, techno, lawn-dance going on as well. And you are right. The mockingbird does like to flash its bright white wing-bars. It is one showy bird. Between its amazing singing and flashy dancing, all it needs is an agent and it could open for Celine Dion in Vegas.

Like most out-of-the-ordinary bird behavior, the mockingbird's wing-flashes are the subject of much debate amongst researchers and other people who care about such things. The most commonly held theory is that the bird flashes its white wing-bars while it is hunting, in order to startle insects, thus making them more visible to be caught. It's a nice theory, but insects don't seem very startled by white. They are never started by me and there aren't many things in nature that are more pasty white than I am.

Another thought is that the wing-flashing wards off predators. Any potential predator might think twice before wanting to eat a bird that keeps spazzing out white flashes as it walks. Territorial defense is another idea that has been bantered about. Wing-flashes will somehow keep all of the other mockers at bay. And let's not forget, the old attract-a-mate theory has to be considered too. Every unexplained behavior gets funneled into that category.

All of these thoughts have some merit, but as of yet none of them have ever been conclusively proven. And to confuse things even more, other species of mockingbirds, from other parts of the world, also flash their wings. Yet, our mockingbird, the Northern Mockingbird, is the only one with distinctive white wing patches. The other mockers don't have anything colorful to flash, but they still spread their wings in the same manner. At this point, scientists are not able to determine why mockingbirds, with or without wing-bars, like to spread their wings. Personally, I think the birds are simply doing it to mess with our heads, but most scientists don't subscribe to that theory.

Now before we get too down on the researchers for coming up short on this flashing thing, there is one odd mockingbird behavior that they have figured out and this one's even weirder. Mockers will often face each other, a few feet apart, on the ground. They then will stare each other down like two cowboys in a gun fight. (I'm talking about the old time cowboys here, back when they didn't like each other as much as they apparently do now.) But instead of shooting each other (The NRA has lobbied hard to prevent birds from having their own guns.) the birds step from side to side and back and fourth, looking like line dancers, but without the big belt buckles and the tobacco drool.

At first, researchers thought it was some kind of mating ritual (they think that about everything), but after placing color bands on the birds (remember male and female mockers look the same), it turned out that the two birds were both males. The two male mockingbirds were at the edges of their respective territories and this weird line dance was simply defensive posturing. Mockingbirds are extremely territorial anytime of the year. Whenever one mocker tries to invade another bird's territory, there's going to be trouble.

If you see two mockingbirds facing each other, Jake, it's all about defending their territory. This wing-flashing thing, however, remains one of nature's mysteries. The wing-flash is right up there with the other important mysteries of our time; like the elephant graveyard, the lost city of Atlantis and why so many travel to Vegas to see Celine Dion.



Artwork by Catherine Clark


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