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Friday, June 3, 2022

Mockingbirds...including Lanier - Bob: The Story of Our Mockingbird - Keeping the Public in Public Domain

Sometimes it just isn't possible to find exactly the story I want to tell.  <GASP!>  It's true, even with a computer and a large library.  I've been enjoying the return of songbirds from their winter homes in the south.  At the same time I was afraid I might have lost hearing one I especially love.  We had the utility company trim a tree growing around various utility wires.  Supposedly it's a mulberry although I've never seen any berries.  What I have noticed is it's the favorite perch for a mockingbird.  It's lovely to be out on our deck at the barbecue or the laundry line and be serenaded.  I'm relieved to say that tall utility pole and companion tree still attracts my mockingbird, but it also has chosen the top of another tree a short flap of his wings away.

How do I know it's the same bird?  Of course I don't, but All About Birds says "If you’ve been hearing an endless string of 10 or 15 different birds singing outside your house, you might have a Northern Mockingbird in your yard."  I can't be sure it's the same bird year after year, but "Northern Mockingbirds continue to add new sounds to their repertoires throughout their lives. A male may learn around 200 songs throughout its life."  That lifespan can be long with "The oldest Northern Mockingbird on record was at least 14 years, 10 months old when it was found in Texas."  I'm also told they may sing at night, especially if not yet mated and that females may sing, too, just "usually more quietly than the male does."  My boy sings quite loudly and if he's mated, I hope he's teaching the rest of his family.

I've gathered two songs, "Listen to the Mockingbird" and "Mockingbird Hill", but a story I might use with them continues to escape me.  

Thornton Burgess has a book, The Adventures of Mr. Mocker, but the bird isn't seen until right before the book's end when a mystery is solved about how he's been tricking other birds and even a tree toad by singing as they do.  The book's title lets young readers in on the joke from the beginning.  Burgess also gives the Mockingbird part of a chapter called "Jenny Wren's Cousins" in his The Burgess Bird Book for Children, again with its tricky nature featured.  

In contrast the poet, Sidney Lanier, in Bob: The Story of Our Mocking-Bird tells about a real bird from the time his sons found the hatchling abandoned on the forest floor until its death years later.  Be sure to catch an e-version with illustrations as:

The illustrations which form so important a part of the effort to make a picture of Bob, are unusual in their origin and in their method. Mr. Dugmore made photographic studies of a young mocking-bird, or, rather, of a number of young mocking-birds, the photographs were colored by him, and the plates from these photographs were printed in color. The variety of rare tints in any bird's plumage, their extreme delicacy, and the infinitely fine gradations of shading have almost always baffled the artist and the printer. The present attempt to reproduce Mr. Dugmore's masterly pictures in color shows at least a handsome advance in the difficult art.

I'm going to skip to the raising of the bird and even its battle with a pin cushion and mirror, going instead to the mature bird.  


The most elegant, trim ... little dandy
"The most elegant, trim ... little dandy"

At this present writing, Bob is the most elegant, trim, electric, persuasive, cunning, tender, courageous, artistic little dandy of a bird that mind can imagine. He does not confine himself to imitating the songs of his tribe. He is a creative artist. I was witness not long ago to the selection and adoption by him of a rudimentary whistle-language. During an illness it fell to my lot to sleep in a room alone with Bob. In the early morning, when a lady—to whom Bob is passionately attached—would make her appearance in the room, he would salute her with a certain joyful chirrup which appears to belong to him peculiarly. I have not heard it from any other bird. But sometimes the lady would merely open the door, make an inquiry, and then retire. It was now necessary for his artistic soul to find some form of expressing grief. For this purpose he selected a certain cry almost identical with that of the cow-bird—an indescribably plaintive, long-drawn, thin whistle. Day after day I heard him make use of these expressions. He had never done so before. The mournful one he would usually accompany, as soon as the door was shut, with a sidelong, inquiring posture of the head, which was a clear repetition of the lover's Is she gone? Is she really gone?

A sidelong, inquiring posture of the head, ... Is she gone?
"A sidelong, inquiring posture of the head, ... Is she gone?"

letter T

here is one particular in which Bob's habits cannot be recommended. He eats very often. In fact if Bob should hire a cook, it would be absolutely necessary for him to write down his hours for her guidance; and this writing would look very much like a time-table of the Pennsylvania, or the Hudson River, or the Old Colony, Railroad. He would have to say: "Bridget will be kind enough to get me my breakfast at the following hours: 5, 5.30, 5.40, 6, 6.15, 6.30, 6.45, 7, 7.20, 7.40, 8 (and so on, every fifteen or twenty minutes, until 12 M.); my dinner at 12, 12.20, 12.40, 1, 1.15, 1.30 (and so on every fifteen or twenty minutes until 6 p.m.); my supper is irregular, but I wish Bridget particularly to remember that I always eat whenever I awake in the night, and that I usually awake four or five times between bedtime and daybreak." With all this eating, Bob never neglects to wipe his beak after each meal. This he does by drawing it quickly, three or four times on each side, against his perch.

He eats very often
"He eats very often"

Bob never neglects to wipe his beak after each meal
"Bob never neglects to wipe his beak after each meal"

I never tire of watching his motions. There does not seem to be the least friction between any of the component parts of his system. They all work, give, play in and out, stretch, contract, and serve his desires generally with a smoothness and soft precision truly admirable.

Merely to see him leap from his perch to the floor of his cage is to me a never-failing marvel. It is so instantaneous, and yet so quiet: clip, and he is down, with his head in the food-cup: I can compare it to nothing but the stroke of Fate. It is perhaps a strained association of the large with the small: but when he suddenly leaps down in this instantaneous way, I always feel as if, while looking down upon the three large Forms of the antique Sculpture, lying in severe postures along the ground, I suddenly heard the clip of the fatal shears.

His repertory of songs is extensive. Perhaps it would have been much more so if his life had been in the woods where he would have had the opportunity to hear the endlessly-various calls of his race. So far as we can see, the stock of songs which he now sings must have been brought in his own mind from the egg, or from some further source whereof we know nothing. He certainly never learned these calls: many of the birds of whom he gives perfect imitations have been always beyond his reach. He does not apprehend readily a new set of tones. He has caught two or three musical phrases from having them whistled near him. No systematic attempt, however, has been made to teach him anything. His procedure in learning these few tones was peculiar. He would not, on first hearing them, make any sign that he desired to retain them, beyond a certain air of attention in his posture. Upon repetition on a different day, his behavior was the same: there was no attempt at imitation. But sometime afterward, quite unexpectedly, in the hilarious flow of his birdsongs would appear a perfect reproduction of the whistled tones. Like a great artist he was rather above futile and amateurish efforts. He took things into his mind, turned them over, and, when he was perfectly sure of them, brought them forth with perfection and with unconcern.

He has his little joke. His favorite response to the endearing terms of the lady whom he loves is to scold her. Of course he understands that she understands his wit. He uses for this purpose the angry warning cry which mocking-birds are in the habit of employing to drive away intruders from their nests. At the same time he expresses his delight by a peculiar gesture which he always uses when pleased. He extends his right wing and stretches his leg along the inner surface of it as far as he is able.

He stretches his body until he seems incredibly tall
"He stretches his body until he seems incredibly tall"


There's more in the book, including a discussion of whether it was a good idea to keep the bird.  All About Birds says:

It’s not just other mockingbirds that appreciate a good song. In the nineteenth century, people kept so many mockingbirds as cage birds that the birds nearly vanished from parts of the East Coast. People took nestlings out of nests or trapped adults and sold them in cities such as Philadelphia, St. Louis, and New York, where, in 1828, extraordinary singers could fetch as much as $50.

Because Lanier is a poet, there is a poem introducing the story and later an Epilogue about the bird's death. 

The problem with animal stories is so often the ending, since every story needs a conflict.  I remember a girl, who is now an adult, when she attended a movie series at the library where I worked.  Her mother said "Don't mind ___, she covers up her eyes when the animal is in danger, but she'll be fine."  

Recently I was telling to some disabled adults.  I've no idea what disabilities were represented, but I quickly found a very bright young woman loudly and emphatically objecting to each story I was going to tell because there was hunting (even if in the most ridiculous tall tale style) or some other way an animal might be hurt.  After the program I learned she had injured a frog long ago, felt guilty, and felt strongly about any animal cruelty.  I, too, agree, but hadn't seen the stories in that way.  To try and help her find a way to enjoy the program, I brought out some of the reusable sticker sets sold by Melissa & Doug I've been using with groups to help the audience create stories.  She was able to join the others, helping create the story, although I had to remind her a story needs some kind of conflict to be resolved.  Unfortunately that didn't leave her able to accept other stories.  Seeing it wasn't going to work for her, the group leader asked her out into the hall while I told to the remaining audience.  They knew her, so they seemed to accept the problems we were having, but wanted to hear the stories.  Nothing says I handled this unexpected problem correctly, but it did leave me thinking further about the dangers of stories with animals or if I ever again have a group vocally unhappy with my stories.  It was the first ever to happen in more years that I will bother to number, but it's a lot!

With all of that in my mind, I'm surprised to find the bird has so little in the way of folklore.  Of course I am limited here in what I can reprint to stories that must be in the Public Domain.  I could find an Aesop tale supposedly about the mockingbird; Eggleston has "The Mocking-Bird's Singing-School"; and Young's Plantation Bird Legends story of "Mocking Bird's Theft" about stealing corn and how people now have it.  None of them are what I wanted to tell. 

Even beyond that, still under copyright I found only four more stories: a Mayan tale learning a song (Bowes - Bird Kingdom of the Mayas); a Hopi story of it giving out calls to the birds (Courlander - People of the Short Blue Corn: Tales and Legends of  the Hopi Indians); another Hopi tale where the mockingbird wins the contest for calling the dawn (Brown - Tepee Tales of the American Indian); and Sis Mockingbird teaches a crude courting song to Br'er B'ar, but a fine one to Br'er Rabbit (Faulkner - Days When the Animals Talked: Black American Folktales and How They Came to Be ). 

I did find two non-fiction articles worth reading.  I'd long heard birdsong is territorial, so "Why Do Birds Sing? (6 reasons and what their songs mean)" attracted me.  Scientific American has an article with a very long title if we include the sub-title, "Mockingbirds Are Better Musicians Than We Thought" followed by "Their complex songs have striking similarities to Beethoven, Tuvan throat singing, a Disney musical and Kendrick Lamar." 

Going back to those two songs I mentioned way earlier, the upbeat melody of "Listen to the Mocking Bird"  is misleading as the song's original lyrics are remembering the bird's song at a grave.  I must have been remembering one of the other versions of it.  It's a story, but not the one I want to tell.  "Mockingbird Hill" has lyrics matching my enjoyment of the bird.  It's interesting that those lyrics take you up there on Mockingbird Hill "Only me and the sky and an old whippoorwill Singing songs in the twilight on Mockin'bird Hill."  I did a quick Wikipedia check thinking maybe Whippoorwill is another name for Mockingbird.  It's not.  The good news for lovers of Whip-poor-will's is there are many stories mentioned there.  The bad news is that bird's becoming rare and now is considered "near threatened."

I'm grateful the tree trimming has not made "my" mockingbird rare.  As for a story and a song, I still don't think I have it. . . unless this search is the story.


This is part of a series of postings of stories under the category, "Keeping the Public in Public Domain."  The idea behind Public Domain was to preserve our cultural heritage after the authors and their immediate heirs were compensated.  I feel strongly current copyright law delays this intent on works of the 20th century.  My own library of folklore includes so many books within the Public Domain I decided to share stories from them.  I hope you enjoy discovering new stories.  

At the same time, my own involvement in storytelling regularly creates projects requiring research as part of my sharing stories with an audience.  Whenever that research needs to be shown here, the publishing of Public Domain stories will not occur that week.  This is a return to my regular posting of a research project here.  (Don't worry, this isn't dry research, my research is always geared towards future storytelling to an audience.)  Response has convinced me that "Keeping the Public in Public Domain" should continue along with my other postings as often as I can manage it.
Other Public Domain story resources I recommend-
  • There are many online resources for Public Domain stories, maybe none for folklore is as ambitious as fellow storyteller, Yoel Perez's database, Yashpeh, the International Folktales Collection.  I have long recommended it and continue to do so.  He has loaded Stith Thompson's Motif Index into his server as a database so you can search the whole 6 volumes for whatever word or expression you like by pressing one key.
  • You may have noticed I'm no longer certain Dr. Perez has the largest database, although his offering the Motif Index certainly qualifies for those of us seeking specific types of stories.  There's another site, FairyTalez claiming to be the largest, with "over 2000 fairy tales, folktales, and fables" and they are "fully optimized for phones, tablets, and PCs", free and presented without ads.

    Between those two sites, there is much for story-lovers, but as they say in infomercials, "Wait, there's more!"
The email list for storytellers, Storytell, discussed Online Story Sources and came up with these additional suggestions:            
         - David K. Brown -
         - Richard Martin -
         - Spirit of Trees -
         - Story-Lovers - is now only accessible through the Wayback Machine, described below, but the late Jackie Baldwin's wonderful site lives on there, fully searchable manually (the Google search doesn't work), at .  It's not easy, but go to snapshot for October 22 2016  and you can click on SOS: Searching Out Stories to scroll down through the many story topics and click on the story topic that interests you.
       - World of Tales - 
           - Zalka Csenge Virag - doesn't give the actual stories, but her recommendations, working her way through each country on a continent, give excellent ideas for finding new books and stories to love and tell.
You're going to find many of the links on these sites have gone down, BUT go to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine to find some of these old links.  Tim's site, for example, is so huge probably updating it would be a full-time job.  In the case of Story-Lovers, it's great that Jackie Baldwin set it up to stay online as long as it did after she could no longer maintain it.  Possibly searches maintained it.  Unfortunately Storytell list member, Papa Joe is on both Tim Sheppard's site and Story-Lovers, but he no longer maintains his old Papa Joe's Traveling Storytelling Show website and his Library (something you want to see!) is now only on the Wayback Machine.  It took some patience working back through claims of snapshots but finally in December of 2006 it appears!
    Somebody as of this writing whose stories can still be found by his website is the late Chuck Larkin -  I prefer to list these sites by their complete address so they can be found by the Wayback Machine, a.k.a., when that becomes the only way to find them.
You can see why I recommend these to you. Have fun discovering even more stories!

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