Other species heard in the calls of mockingbirds and other mimics

Is there a good way to note species that must be present, even if there is no direct evidence of them? Specifically, I’m thinking that if I listen to one of my neighborhood mockingbirds, I can get a good idea of many of the other birds that must be in the area. What’s the best way to note the likely presence of those other birds? Or is it better to ignore this kind of thing from an iNaturalist perspective?


No telling where the mocking bird picked up the different calls it is doing, if that is what you are talking about. You can always create an observation about something you saw/heard even without evidence.


Given the uncertainty clay notes about when and where the mockingbird picked up its calls (maybe even picked them up from another mockingbird who picked them up elsewhere?), maybe this is something better for an observation field like “Call mimicking species _,” or something like that. The information is made available without making possibly mistaken assumptions about another organism’s presence.


I have heard a mockingbird mimicking a Barn Swallow in the winter here, likewise with starlings mimicking meadowlarks and wood-pewees. I think it’s probable that these individual birds have heard those species, but it could have been a year ago at a different location.


Has it been proven that mockingbirds mimic other birds songs “simply for the hell of it” or do they do that only if the mocked bird is present?

1 Like

Mimics construct their songs by hearing other noises, learning them, and then incorporating them into their own songs.

However, as noted above, there’s no guarantee that an individual bird learned it’s mimicked song from the actual bird, rather than just from hearing another mimic.

Once a songbird learns a vocalization, it more or less has that vocalization for life. So the learning event could have occurred years prior to the observer hearing the song.


I think it would be better to ignore it because the mockingbird could have picked it up years ago, at a different location, or, though I don’t know if this is possible, from another mockingbird who got the call from who knows where. You could technically still upload the observations, but you’d have to mark them as location inaccurate and date inaccurate

But how is this different from finding a feather that fell off a bird maybe 3+ years ago? Or a shell on a beach that doesn’t have the live animal in it, and could have washed up many kms from where the animal lost that shell?

Because this would be a reproduction of the shell or feather, not the actual item.


Interesting… to extend it further, the footprint of an animal is a reproduction, not the actual foot.

It’s getting into semantics more than it needs to be though. I think it comes down to how reliable the evidence is, and how critical the pin location and date accuracy are. If we are arguing that the accuracy is critical, then goodbye all the feather and shell obs… but anyone analysing the data is going to factor that sort of thing into their work. Would anyone working with range data on a given bird species be factoring in the likelihood that the observations might be of mimicry and present a good distance from where the actual live bird was when the mimicry was learnt? Highly unlikely. But for shells it is unrealistic to think of them not considering it!

Also, in the case of mimicry of calls, I think it would come down to a species level thing… how likely is it for that species to remember and use the call throughout it’s life, or to only use the call when the mimicked bird is present or near by? I think there are too many unknowns to be able to treat it reliably and consistantly

1 Like

It’s so entertaining to listen to a mockingbird and “decode” his song! I haven’t done so yet, but if I did post a mockingbird observation for this purpose, I would use the description area of the record to give a journal type account of the “birds heard.”

If you have any recording capability (even with a smartphone mic), an alternative is to capture your local mockingbird’s typical song and make an observation here out of the sound file. Then other folks can hear “the birds” too.

Hm, you’ve given me a post-quarantine idea. ;)

1 Like

So I realize I have misinterpreted the original poster’s question here. I thought it was to make use of the mocking character of the mockingbird’s calls to make iNat observations of other bird species, hence why I asked that question.

That was what I was wondering too, but I didn’t word my question properly.

Mockingbirds were given as a specific example, but I think @pisum 's question can be taken more generally…

Take the situation where there is a species list maintained by the park authority of birds seen at a local park… that shows that other people have seen those birds, and indirectly I can infer that they are present at that park even if I can’t see them myself. This I think obviously doesn’t fit the iNat concept of “observation”, even if we factor in that I “observed the list”!

I’m in a similar situation, one project I am working with is trying to establish an accurate list of what exotic plants are present in New Zealand, and part of how we are doing that is to take “catalogues” from significant plant collections and then try and find those plants and make observations of them. It stands to reason that not everything on the catalogue will still be present, some will have died and not been replaced or even to have been identified incorrectly in the first place, so it is not enough to just rely on the catalogue alone. I do make “observations” of the catalogue entries, but they are casual, no photo and marked as cultivated. The mission then becomes “find it and document it”, but I certainly wouldn’t make RG observations based on the catalogue entry!


i think this gets most directly to what i’m getting at with my mockingbird example. it seems the line that is crossed here is that it’s technically a secondhand account – through an intermediary, not just indirect evidence. so even if the mockingbird call could be trusted to be mimicking a bird that was in the area recently, i think the spirit of iNaturalist says that i still need to make my own observation of that other bird.

is there a way to use a single observation field multiple times in a given observation? most of the mockingbirds here seem to mimic multiple other birds. so ideally if i were to go with an observation field approach to capture this information, i’d like to be able to catalog all of the other bird species in a single searchable observation field.

1 Like

It would still be interesting to document them though. If you have a recording of the mockingbird, and perhaps a photo as evidence of that as well, then the recording can be used to list the “other species heard” in the description or comments or the Mimicry field https://inaturalist.org/observation_fields/4348 … and perhaps even a field akin to the interaction fields: https://inaturalist.org/observation_fields?utf8=✓&q=interaction->&commit=Search
@jon_sullivan Maybe a field could be added “Interaction-> Mimicked the call of” so that you can tie into the taxonomy (although it isn’t dynamic, once set it won’t pick up taxon changes etc)

[edit] Out of curiosity, how good is their mimicry? If you only hear the call, could you differentiate between the mimicker and mimicked birds? Kind of puts the focus back on the validity of ALL bird calls!


i often think of mockingbirds as sort of local birding guides, letting me know what other birds are in the immediate area. i’ve been hearing shore bird sounds from the local mockingbirds recently, and sure enough, there was a killdeer pair that hung out in a local parking lot for a few days (though they’re now gone, and the mockingbirds – and maybe a few starlings, too – are still telling stories of the time that killdeer pair passed through).

1 Like

Mockingbirds are extremely good mimics, but they have a consistent pattern while singing that makes them easy to pick out. They pretty much always repeat the same sound 4 or 5 times and then move onto another sound. So it might perfectly match a Killdeer but a Killdeer wouldn’t call with the same rhythm, and then you hear the next sound the mockingbird does. Similarly if I hear a starling mimicking it usually does the sound once but then starts doing other starling garbly noises (although the other calls tend to be quieter…). Blue Jays aren’t as good mimics but they may just do a raptor call once or twice on its own.
(nevermind my friend’s conspiracy theory that all birds are actually mockingbirds in disguise)


I thought all birds were just able to mimic a small part of a mocking birds song. For some reason it follows along species lines which part they can mimic. ;P


I’ve read that Australian lyrebirds were still heard mimicking mainland whipbirds, 40 years after they were introduced to Tasmania.