Other species heard in the calls of mockingbirds and other mimics

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

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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. ;)

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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.

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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).

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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.


Just about 10 years ago, when I was still on the staff at Balcones Canyonlands NWR here in Central Texas, I wrote a blog post for the Friends group which documented the repertoire of one particular N. Mockingbird which had clearly learned most of its songs from a distant avifauna. A link to that encounter is paste below. (The Friends group web site has since been reformatted and most of the bird images are no longer properly linked but the text is still intact.) The take-away: Mockers may learn local songs but then they themselves may relocate to a distant location.


Interesting conversation. I don’t think it’s needed as a new “interaction->” field, but only because it’s stretching the definition of a species interaction. It certainly would be interesting to keep track of all the other species being mimicked by mockingbirds in an area. I’m not too sure what the most efficient way is to do that on iNat.

It’s better to add those species to the place list and add an abundance mark that will fit the species in the situation.

There’s no ability to find out where the bird heard the calls, if it’s spring and a Starling is making Bullfinch calls or Jay is behaving like a crazy cat or Icterine Warbler makes all alarming calls it learned through its life, it’s very likely it heard it at least last season or it could learn something while it was somewhere in Central Africa. So I’m up for observation field of mimicked sounds.


I recorded a mockingbird just yesterday, impressed with its repertoire and skill, with the intention of trying to decode its mimicked songs myself. I got partway through the song. You can hear and see here:

I see iNaturalist as two things: a record keeper of species I have observed myself, and also a database of species present. For the first, a mockingbird’s song definitely doesn’t fit the bill, so by making observations for each mimicked species, I’d be doing myself and my records a disservice. For the second, Audubon says that, while mockingbird migration is poorly understood, “some move southward in fall, at least short distances, but some remain through winter at northern limits of range.” So how would you know you don’t have one that has traveled at least some distance?

Also, you have to ask what would be your purpose in reporting the mimicked birds as present. It’s not to fill out your own list of observed species, so I imagine it would be to fill out iNat’s database with possible species present. Well, if those species really are present, then it’s likely someone else or even yourself has/have actually reported a wren, a jay, and a titmouse there because they/you actually saw them. If those mimicked birds have not been seen and reported directly, then that suggests the mockingbird may have learned the song elsewhere.

The train of my logic here suggests to me that there is not a good reason to report the mimicked species as present, unless there’s something I haven’t thought of. But it’s fun to listen and list them in the description! =)


Ashley, based on the story in the blog link I included above, I think there is good reason NOT to report “observations” of bird species mimicked by a local mockingbird. The original location, timing (last year? earlier?), and even species identification are all just too iffy.

that’s not what was done. there was an observation for a mockingbird created, and notes were added in the description to indicate what other birds were heard in the song.


That’s good information!

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