My last semester in college, I had to do a field experiment for my behavioral ecology class. I thought for awhile, came up with nothing, and went to see the professor, an ornithologist.
“Do mockingbird song,” he said, and tossed me some old issues of American Naturalist.
The experiments in the journals used tape-recorded mockingbird song to induce territorial behavior in (real) mockingbirds. Play the song, see if it changes how long the real mockingbird sings, or how complex his song is, or how long he waits between songs before starting another round of “gethehellouttaheallyallsnitchesillkillallyallsonsandtakeyallladies” or whatever the true meaning of its song was to other mockingbirds.
I had an old, clunky laptop and found some sample song online and lumbered down through the woods near the college, to where some mockingbirds lived, by the creek.
I needed a baseline level to compare to the behavior in response to the recorded song– how often and for how long the mockingbird sang on its own, undisturbed. I sat outside the holly bush where the mockingbird was sitting on a branch, looking around at me, and waited, holding my stopwatch in one hand and a clipboard in the other.
It didn’t sing.
It was a kind-of cold, gray April day. It started to rain.
My clunky laptop was in a garbage bag so it wouldn’t get wet, but it started raining harder. I put away the clipboard and the stopwatch and went back up to the college.
“It’s the universal rule,” my professor told me. “If you try to measure a behavior, the behavior disappears.”
It rained all that week, and the mockingbirds didn’t sing. Eventually, the sun came out, glorious Pennsylvania spring was in the air, I started sneezing, and the mockingbirds decided it was time.
By then, I only had a few days left to collect data, and I decided I could get a full set of comparison measurements later– I (sneeze) needed to know if the (sneeze) stimulus worked to provoke the desired (sneeze) response. I turned on my laptop’s recorded song.
The mockingbird kept singing– no longer, no shorter, no change.
I had another idea: I’d play the mockingbird’s own song back to it. I recorded about three minutes of its song onto the laptop’s hard drive, and set it on repeat.
The laptop’s built-in speaker was kind of weak and tinny, so I went back to my dorm and found someone with a medium-sized computer speaker that took batteries. I went back and arranged the speaker underneath the branch the bird was standing on, turned it up all the way, and turned my recorded song back on.
The mockingbird has stopped singing and was dive-bombing me and the speaker. I wasn’t sneezing.
The mockingbird had turned around midair and was coming back in for another pass. It wasn’t singing anymore, more making a sort of “criick criiick” sound. I backed up from the speaker, which was still singing electronically away.
The mockingbird had hit the black plastic speaker full force and was knocking into it with its beak. “criiick crick,” it was saying, which I think translates as “my name is my name” in mockingbirdese.
Trying to be inconspicuous, I crawled over to my laptop and turned off the recorded song. The mockingbird jumped off the speaker in confusion, stared at it for a while, jumped around on the ground like a boxer who isn’t sure if he’s won the match, then gave a victorious cheep and flew back to its branch.
I pulled the cord of the speak gingerly towards me. There were scratches in the black plastic casing that I’d need to explain later on.
Maybe try it from the next tree over, and at half-volume, I thought.