If it’s true that imitation is the highest form of flattery, then the Northern Mockingbird is one of the bird kingdom’s biggest brown-nosers. But mimicry can have nobler goals too.
It’s early morning in my campsite in the Smokies; I’m barely awake and too cold to willingly surrender the warmth of my sleeping bag just yet. But from inside my tent, why not get an early jump on my birdwatching with a little bit of birding by ear? I listen to the flutelike melody of the Hermit Thrush that just woke me up. He’s quickly followed by the bird-ee bird-ee bird-ee of a Northern Cardinal, and the pita-pita of a Tufted Titmouse. Oddly though, they all sound like they’re coming from the same spot. Realization dawns; this chorus of birds perched above my tent is actually one bird. One really proficient bird.
The Northern Mockingbird’s scientific name is a perfect one: Mimus polyglottus, Latin for “many-tongued mimic.” The mockingbird only has one tongue, thankfully, but he has seven pairs of syrinx muscles, resulting in impressive voice control. This gray-and-white virtuoso can reproduce the sounds of over 150 birds. And he doesn’t stop there. Mockingbirds can reproduce the sounds of chirping crickets, peeping frogs, meowing cats, and barking dogs. Observers have noted instances of mockingbirds imitating ringing phones, car alarms, and squeaky pulley wheels. A mockingbird was spotted at an outdoor concert-in-the-park symphony, trying to imitate the violin. One homeowner watched a mockingbird simulate the predatory sound of a Northern Harrier, scaring all the other birds out of the yard, after which he promptly enjoyed the spoils of the vacant feeder. Another shared of a mockingbird that imitated the sound of her gate opening one morning, prompting her laughter, then the bird’s imitation of her laughter, then her laughter at the impression of her laughter, and an ensuing exchange of hilarity with all the feel of an inside joke.
Thomas Jefferson had a pet mockingbird named Dick, one of America’s more unusual White House residents. Dick could sing popular tunes to Jefferson while he napped and, when accompanying him on a trip to Paris, learned to imitate the creaking of the ship’s timbers. Today, the mockingbird maintains his political interests by serving as the state bird of Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas—as well as a brief stint as the state bird of South Carolina from 1939 to 1948, before getting voted out of office by the Carolina Wren. (I don’t know about you, but the thought of elected officials having a wren vs. mockingbird debate on the state senate floor makes me long for a simpler political climate).
With all that imitation, it’s helpful to know that the mockingbird does have, in poker terms, a “tell.” All three of the mimics of the Eastern U.S. do. The Gray Catbird’s repertoire consists of quick unrepeated phrases interspersed with a spastic “meow.” The Brown Thrasher sings his borrowed songs in pairs, each tune sung only and exactly twice before moving on to the next one. The mockingbird can’t stop at two, but is usually done by four or five. If you hear three rounds of a cardinal that suddenly starts speaking robin, it’s safe to assume you’ve been mockingbird-punk’d.
Maybe imitation is flattery, but the mockingbird isn’t trying to flatter you—or to mock you, for that matter. In Harper Lee’s book-defining quote, Miss Maudie explains to Scout in that it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird because "they don't do one thing for us but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us." His song is a gift and we’re the recipients.
Mimicry as Maturity
But the mockingbird has another gift to give, if we’re attentive to it. Listen in on his brilliant repertoire and you’ll hear the joy of a lifelong learner.
The mockingbird is always listening, scrapping for tunes to commit to memory. Surrounded by birds who may be content to carefully recite the same song imprinted as a chick, here’s a bird with a growth mindset. He never stops adding tunes to his set list. Maybe you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but the mockingbird is always up for a new song. If your life outlook is grounded in a commitment to personal improvement, a desire to change and learn, a push for life challenges and growth opportunities, then the mockingbird is an apt metaphor for you, a mascot of good-to-great.
I remember being a bit incensed one day, as a young seminary student, hearing two fellow seminarians discussing a discipleship strategy that consisted in the student imitating the mentor. “Why would I want anyone to imitate me?” I said. “We want people to imitate Jesus, not each other.” One of these friends patiently pointed me to a verse from Paul in 1 Corinthians: “Therefore I urge you to imitate me.” (1 Corinthians 4:16). And then another: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1). And, it turns out, those verses were far from isolated ones. The picture of discipleship is a picture of imitation. The Greek word for “imitate”, in fact, is that same root as the mockingbird’s Latin name: Mimou. Mimic. Discipleship is mimicry.
Not Worth Repeating
The needed disclaimer in that verse is “as I follow Christ.” Imitation is a given, but what will we pass on? What will we pick up? In a fallen world, assets can get lost in transmission, and liabilities can be highly contagious. The student might fail to follow the example, or the teacher might fail to set it.
In the former, imitation becomes distortion. Positive things when copied improperly can have negative results—the fallout of imitation in a sin-soaked world. When a pastor pawns off another pastor’s sermon as his own, it’s called plagiarism. When a moviegoer films the theater screen with his iPhone, it’s called piracy. When an underground printing press cranks out twenty-dollar bills, it’s called counterfeiting. When a friend passes on a juicy tidbit they heard about so-and-so, it’s called gossip. These are the dark forms of imitation because they take something. They take credit, they take intellectual property, they take someone’s reputation. But imitation—in its best forms—gives.
In the latter, it’s not the student’s inability to mimic, but the teacher’s inability to set the example, that drops the baton in the handoff. Somehow it’s far easier to pass along our disagreeable qualities than to pass along our noble ones. Parents are especially conscious of this, in striving to set an example worthy of next-generation emulation. Of all the things my kids hear from me, what will be the easiest for them to remember? The best words will be believable, and will be backed up by my life. Time will tell which ones those truly are. I’m reminded of one of the great mimics of Australia, the cockatoo. Reports began surfacing in the Outback of wild cockatoos calling out curse words. The phenomenon apparently began when a domesticated cockatoo escaped. He had a few choice words he’d learned in captivity that he apparently thought were worth passing along to his new friends. The bird heard plenty of human words, I’m sure; the ones he remembered reveal a lot about his former owner.
Learning a Better Song
So imitation can go awry. But when Paul asks people to follow him, he already has his compass bearing. He walked a Christ-honoring walk, in part, “in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate.” (2 Thessalonians 3:9) His Christward cadence was didactic—a song worth repeating.
Discipleship is mimicry. If you want to grow spiritually in an area, why not latch onto someone in whom you see excellence in that same area? If I want a better marriage, I can pursue time with a couple whose marriage I respect. If I want to learn patience, I can identify a noticeably patient person in my life and start asking questions. If we learn golf from golfers and music from musicians, shouldn’t we learn faith from the faithful?
I once heard Tim Keller describing an interaction with a friend. His friend challenged him: “Tim, when your sermon is well-researched and prepared, you quote from lots of people. When it’s not, you just quote C.S. Lewis.” While that could be seen as incriminating—and a convicting word on adequate sermon preparation—to me it’s actually inspiring. The authors and influences we know best become the words that flow from us naturally. They reveal the heart-defaults of a person, the deep and familiar well we most readily draw from. Keller knows Lewis so well that, when other voices aren’t as readily apparent, Lewis just spills out of him.
So what spills out of me? This is convicting. Do I know more movie lines than I know lines of Scripture? Are my factory settings set to the language of my Savior? Has my mind dwelled on what is pure, noble, excellent, and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8-9) so much that it becomes repeatable at the default level? Have I learned a song worthy of repetition?
Repeat the Sounding Joy
In a sense, Jesus’s message was mimicry too. He told the disciples, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15, ESV) He listened to the Father’s song and repeated it note for note to his disciples.
And he sends his Spirit to do the same: “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.” (John 16:13) God the Son and God the Spirit perfectly repeat the heart of the Father into our lives.
The mockingbird reminds us that a great song is worthy of emulation.
Learn that song, sing it by heart, and pass it on.