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Mockingbird arrives, is it climate change?

One can hardly pick up a newspaper or read a Web site without hearing screaming voices expounding on the imminent threat of global climate change and possible future scenarios thereof. I will point out that, in learned halls, similar debates regarding birds are taking place. Are birds in trouble or are they not? Are they expanding their ranges or contracting them?

I highlight this only because of a recent discovery in West Fargo's Rendezvous Park. It appears a pair of northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) successfully nested and are in the process of rearing at least one juvenile bird. It's likely the first confirmed nesting in Cass County and only the second in the state.

The northern mockingbird was first discovered nearly 300 years ago by an Englishman, Mark Catesby. As the colonies were settled, this bird quickly became a well-known favorite of folks everywhere. It's the subject of many books and popular songs and even represents the state bird of five states.

Its scientific name is a mix of Latin and Greek and means "many-tongued mimic." Thirty-one species represent the family Mimidae, all in the Western Hemisphere. The group includes birds more familiar locally such as brown thrasher and gray catbird. But it's the northern mockingbird that is the quintessential representative.

Its appeal is obvious: A ceaseless and highly varied repertoire of songs can and does erupt from this creature. In addition to mimicking songs of other birds, the mockingbird can skillfully copy virtually any sound such as those of frogs, insects, dogs, and mechanical devices; even to the point of being indistinguishable from the original. Along with the variety comes volume. This bird is capable of very loud vocalizations, often into the night.

Northern mockingbirds are about the size of robins but much slimmer with a longer tail. Overall, it's mostly gray, light below and darker above. Its legs and beak are black. Two white wing bars can be evident but are often concealed. In flight, this bird stands out like a beacon - a bold flashes of white wing patches and white outer tail feathers are very evident.

Another interesting aspect of its voice is the ability to add to its stock of songs. Research is still figuring a lot of this out, but it appears a great majority of birds learn their songs in their immediate environment and during their first few months of life. Not so with northern mockingbirds. It is a lifelong learner of new vocalizations, adding to it constantly.

Mockingbirds, traditionally, occupy more southerly latitudes; predominantly the Gulf Coast. But today they are not all that rare even in North Dakota (a few reports every year) and into southern Canada. Global warming? Well, a highly regarded ornithological journal wrote of mockingbird range 1963.

Therein lays the fallacy inherent in some of the bird guides. Most will give the reader an expected range to view certain bird species. But what time frame are we talking about? It is easy to view our world as a static, harmonious place where life goes on as it has been and will be to come. This is somewhat myopic. Once a person wraps their arms around the fact that our lives represent the tiniest of points on the great time line, a larger understanding can begin.

The earth, even the universe, is in a constant state of turmoil and disruption from influences far outside our ability to affect. Climate is but a small part of this. Yes, it's been colder and yes, it's been warmer. It will likely be both again. The perspective that is missing in all of this climate talk is that the world has been around for a very, very long time. In those billions of years, only one thing is constant, change. And birds will continue to alter their habits in lockstep with it.