The Weekly Chirp: To mock a mockingbird

The undergraduate experience brings numerous changes to a student’s life, like living away from home and having a beer for the first time upon reaching the appropriate legal age. A perhaps less conspicuous change that occurs throughout our college years is an alteration in our verbal vocabulary. Coming from many places, college students bring a wide variety of slang and phrases that they expose to their campus. People from New Hampshire and Vermont are exposed to strange phrases like “hella” and “the Pats suck” by their California friends. Floridians start saying “wicked” after hanging out with Boston locals. And, occasionally, everyone starts saying random words like “lit,” “send,” and “fam,” after hearing them from some enthusiastic New Jersian at a party.  The result? A chaotic concoction of verbal heterogeneity, integral to and beloved by the community.

Similar to college students, the northern mockingbird incorporates many different sounds into its song, which it sings repeatedly throughout the year to either attract a mate or defend its territory (hence the name mockingbird). Generally, it focuses on mimicking other bird songs and calls that it hears on a regular basis. Around the Tufts campus, these include the song of the northern cardinal and the flight call of the American Goldfinch, among others. However, the mockingbird does not limit itself to other bird sounds — it will happily incorporate other sounds that it hears often into its song. Some examples of these non-avian sounds are car alarms and the rhythmic beeping of a truck in reverse. Next time you’re passing by Pearson or Dewick, listen for the complex song of the resident mockingbird, or look for him on the very tops of trees.

The mockingbird’s expansive range (found everywhere in the United States besides the North Pacific and North Midwest) has exposed them to hundreds of different avian species, and as a result there have been hundreds of recorded mockingbird song variations across the country. While mockingbirds in New Mexico mock the melodious chorus of gray vireos and scott’s orioles, mockingbirds to the north of us in Maine utilize the vocalizations of breeding warblers and finches. A study in Florida recorded 203 song variations for a single mockingbird (wow!!!). A single female finds a complex song featuring a diverse collection of sounds to be quite sexy, so males do not discriminate when adding sounds to their music library.

But, why do we do it? Do we think adding new words and phrases to our verbal arsenal bolsters our sexual appeal? Perhaps, but it seems rather unlikely. Why do we insist on describing a fun party as “lit,” the same word we use to describe igniting a fire in the past tense? How is it that we collectively altered the definition of the verb “send” to mean to go somewhere? The story is so simple for the mockingbird, but for us, I suppose it must remain a mystery.

With love,