Mockingbirds did not become part of bird legend until the 20th century, likely because of the Harper Lee book and movie, To Kill A Mockingbird. The mockingbird then became a symbol for lost innocence as the story goes. Yesterday when I was thinking about the different birds I had painted, I realized I had never painted a mockingbird for some unknown reason. Maybe its that I never found any inspiration in the mockingbird’s rather drab gray coloring. Sad but true. The bird’s I enjoy painting have bright plumage usually or some other intriguing visual characteristic. Mockingbird’s are just gray. Saturday as I was talking in the nature painting workshop, the subject of the paint color, Payne’s Gray came up. Payne’s gray is not just a mix of black and white. It has a richness that is derived from a myriad of colors. That got me to thinking about gray birds. From there, the mockingbird came up. Immediately, I had to remedy the fact that I had never painted one. My first thought was watercolor but I discarded that in favor of colored pencil. I wanted to see what other colors besides gray, came into play in the feathers of a mockingbird. There are more than gray. Perhaps with oil paint, I may find even more.
From painting a mockingbird, I went looking for intrigue with folklore of the mockingbird. After getting past the whole innocence lost angle, the genus name of the mockingbird brings up a whole new look at these amazing birds. The Audubon Society states that the actual name for this particular mockingbird is the Northern Mockingbird and species name as Mimus Polyglottos which translates to “many-tongued mimic.” An apt name as the mockingbird is known to sing hundreds of different songs. All About Birds says the Northern Mockingbird continues to sing all day and into the night. The Audubon Society says, “John James Audubon was so in awe of this bird’s singing ability, he wrote of the Northern Mockingbird in Birds of America, “There is probably no bird in the world that possesses all the musical qualifications of this king of song, who has derived all from Nature’s self.” All About Birds has recorded some beautiful singing by the Northern Mockingbird. Both sources say Mockingbirds can even mimic the human sounds, as well as machinery.
According to the website, AuntyFlo, mockingbirds are aggressive defenders of their nest and territory. As a symbolic meaning, the message of the mockingbird is, “We must also have confidence to protect our own means and stand up for our rights.” Perhaps that is the reason the Mockingbird Society chose to name their organization after this fearless defender of territory as they seek to protect and defend children of color from racism in the foster care system.
Purely by accident, I had the opportunity to capture a fearless mockingbird in action when I came upon this scene of a Mockingbird fearlessly attacking and harassing a red-tailed hawk that was hanging around his territory. The poor bedraggled hawk was rain-soaked and looked tired and sad. That didn’t effect this mockingbird. He quickly scared the hawk off apparently knowing the rain would stop soon and the hawk would then go into hunting mode.
While working on the colored pencil drawing of a mockingbird, I thought about the different legends of the mockingbird. From the lost innocence of Harper Lee’s book to the more recent MockingJay of the Hunger Games and Game of Thrones Mockingbird, sweetly singing, fierce defender of territory is a much more appealing legend of the mockingbird for me. This photo totally captures that characteristic. The hawk is probably three times the size of the mockingbird but the little guy made short work of scaring off the bigger bird.
Maybe the strength in the face of bigger, stronger adversity is the reason the State of Tennessee chose the mockingbird as the state bird in 1933. But it could also be the fact that the mockingbird is known for its amazing musical ability and vast repertoire of songs it sings on a daily basis. What could symbolize my home state more that strength in adversity, where the name “Volunteer State” came from, and musical ability characteristic of both major cities, Nashville (Music City) and Memphis, (Home of the Blues). Audubon, himself, called the Mockingbird, “the king of song.” And the state where Graceland lives on as the home of Elvis Presley, King of Rock and Roll, B.B. King, King of the Blues and Roy Acuff, King of Country, (among others!) would choose a bird known as the King of Song, as the state bird. Makes sense to me! Now to find more colors hiding in those gray feathers…