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Of men and moon-walking mockingbirds

Bill Meredith

“We carry in that region known as the unconscious certain
 patterns inherited from ancient days.”
Robert Ardrey

I saw my first mockingbird in the spring of 1953. I was taking a course in ornithology then, so I was on the lookout for any unfamiliar bird; but in fact I had been looking for mockingbirds for years. The old song, “Listen to the Mockingbird,” could still be heard on the radio when I was a child, so I always looked for them; but I never found one. The reason was that they were not common in West Virginia then. They originally lived in the southern states where winters were mild, and gradually extended their range northward, as many species of plants and animals had been doing since the Ice Age ended 12,000 years ago. They probably arrived in Emmitsburg a good deal earlier by coming up the Coastal Plain and avoiding the mountains, so they were abundant when we moved here in 1957.

Mockingbirds live here the year round, but they haven’t adapted very well to the winter food supply. Their basic food consists of insects and berries, and they find enough of these to survive; but they really are not well suited to the usual fare at feeders. They will peck at suet, but seeds are not on their approved diet. However, this year I have had one regularly among the customers at my feeder because the Christmas greenery in our kitchen window box included several branches of holly that were covered with red berries.

Male and female mockingbirds look alike, but I knew the one outside my window was a male because of his behavior. As the days lengthened late in January there came a day when he perched in the tree by the driveway, stared at my wife’s car, and then begin attacking his reflection in the windshield and rear-view mirror. To him, the reflection represented another male mockingbird, a rival who must be driven out of his territory. Earlier in the winter, he might have been willing to tolerate its presence, but now things were changing. His physiological processes were like a row of dominoes; touching the first one set off a chain reaction. The lengthening days were detected by cells in the suprachiasmatic nucleus of his brain, which informed his pineal gland, which sent signals to his testes and adrenal glands, which started pumping hormones into his bloodstream… and suddenly he was infuriated by the sight of another male. There was no thinking involved, and he certainly couldn’t have been aware of how silly he looked. Trying to stand on the windshield and peck at his reflection, he started sliding backward; he tried to walk forward, but his feet had no traction on the glass, so he continued pecking as he moon-walked downward, tail first, until he tripped over the wiper blade and sprawled on the hood. And then, since his reflection was still there, he flew back up to the top of the windshield and repeated the whole performance. This went on for five or ten minutes until he noticed that there was another male mockingbird in the mirror of my truck, and charged off to battle it. Later in the day I saw him locked in mortal combat with the mirror of the neighbor’s car across the street.

In my grandparents’ time, country folk believed it was an omen of death if a bird pecked at a window. Listening to the old people milling about after church or sitting on the porch on a hot Sunday afternoon, I would hear things like, “Shame about old Mr. Jones, wasn’t it? I knew he was going to die; last spring I went to see him and there was this cardinal that kept flapping against the window and pecking to get in.” The speaker would be deadly serious, and the other participants in the conversation would nod solemnly in agreement, ignoring the fact that Mr. Jones was 96 years old and had cancer for the past two years.

In spite of such superstitions, territorial behavior was familiar to biologists as far back as Aristotle, who observed birds chasing each other out of their nesting territories. Birds are active in the daytime and easy to watch, so there were accurate records of what they did; but why they did it was a different matter.

Most interpretations were anthropomorphic; obviously, the bird that could drive competitors out of its territory and have the food supply for its own family would be better off, so most people assumed that birds figured this out by logical reasoning. In the 1930s a new wave of biologists began to interpret behavior that was present in all members of a species as inherited adaptations to their environment rather than conscious thought, but their studies were interrupted by World War II.

Mammals were harder to study; many of them are active at night and even in daytime they are more elusive than birds. Before the 1950s, much of what was known about their behavior was learned from watching animals in zoos, where they were confined to small spaces. But in the ‘50s portable movie cameras and tape recorders became available, and a number of young biologists began to make groundbreaking discoveries about animal behavior. Jane Goodall’s studies of chimpanzees got the most publicity, but there were dozens of others that were equally enlightening. It soon became clear that territorial behavior was commonplace.

Much of the general public became aware of this through a best-selling book entitled The Territorial Imperative¸ written by Robert Ardrey in 1966. Ardrey was not a biologist; he had a degree in anthropology, but made his living by writing plays and movie scripts. Naturally, he was interested in the roots of human behavior, and the new studies of animal behavior intrigued him. The thesis of his book was that territorialism is an inherited form of behavior that evolved in humans just as it did in many other animals, and in modern life this is manifested in our tendency to gain property and defend it against trespassers, be they nosy neighbors, burglars, or invading armies from another country. According to this view, most wars are the result of territorial behavior.

Ardrey’s book stirred up a lot of controversy. Some of the criticism was from specialists who quibbled about his use of terms like “instinct,” which have very precise and limited definitions among scholars. Other critics said Ardrey’s claims were based only on anecdotes and assumptions, and there was no experimental evidence for human territoriality; and still others claimed that even if a territorial urge of some kind did exist in people, Ardrey’s arguments were oversimplified. The controversy died down after a while; behavioral scientists admit that the possibility of human territorialism is an intriguing concept, but definitive proof that Ardrey was either right or wrong is yet to emerge. The only lasting effect is the expression, “territorial imperative,” which has become part of our vocabulary. And, of course, there are a few people of my age who remember that the title of the first chapter in Ardrey’s book was “Of Men and Mockingbirds.”

Read other articles by Bill Meredith