City Paper is not for tourists
A Mount Pleasant bird imitates the inimitable.
Few city dwellers have escaped being awakened by the late-night blare of a car alarm. Most of us muffle the sound with a pillow and roll back to sleep, indifferent to the wails and the question of whether the alarm was set off by a passing car or an actual thief.
Others lie awake for hours, furious but too exhausted to hurl a brick out the window at the offending caror the offending burglar.
But not Colina Campbell. Several weeks ago, the British transplant woke up to the high-pitched bleating of what sounded like a car alarm. It’s an infrequent occurrence on the quiet, tree-lined street in Mount Pleasant where Campbell has lived for the last four years.
When she finally looked out her window, however, the sounds didn’t seem to be coming from a car. They came, instead, from a bush across the street from her home, on the 1800 block of Lamont Street NW. Could someone have crashed into the shrubbery?
It was about 1 a.m., as Campbell remembers it. “I was trying to go to sleep,” she says, “just drifting off into a slumberous state, when I was tugged back awake like a wave upon the beach.” So she threw on her tartan dressing gown and went outside to investigate.
The offending vehicle wasn’t some obnoxious SUV. Nor was it some alarm-protected sports car. It didn’t even have wheels. But it did have wings. And despite those wings, it made a sound any sleep-deprived urbanite should know by heart: Wha-wa, wha-wa, wha-wa, wha-wa…whee, whee, whee, whee…whoo-wah, whoo-wah, whoo-wah…eeenh, eeenh, eeenh, eeenh.
Campbell recognized it as the same species that frequently perches in her back yard: a dark-brown bird, about 10 inches long, with wings and a tail that are nearly black and lower parts that are a brownish white.
“I was irritated, and I needed to shoo this bird off so that I could get back to sleep,” recalls Campbell.
A longtime Londoner who spent her early years in Scotland, Campbell has a keen ear for bird songs. “I was brought up with a rich bird life,” she says. As a child she knew various falcons, grouse, and pheasant by sound. But the only mimicking bird she remembers was the myna, an Asian bird fashionable in Scotland as a pet in the ’70s.
After graduating from the Ruskin School of Fine Art at Oxford University in 1986, Campbell went on a painting expedition to Venezuela with the British Embassy and Living Earth, an environmental education organization. In the rain forest, she came to know the songs and plumage of many exotic bird species.
Nothing, however, quite prepared her for the song of what she calls “the American car-alarm bird.”
“I was amazed by this sound,” says Campbell. “I hear other strange sounds coming out of the zoomonkeys and lionsso I thought this bird must have escaped from the zoo,” just blocks from her door.
The next day, Campbell checked out a hunch after reporting for work at the Discovery Channel, where she helps to identify all manner of birds as part of her job screening footage for the Bethesda-based cable television network. Campbell looked through The Life of Birds, by English naturalist and documentary filmmaker David Attenborough, andbingothere it was: Her late-night serenader was none other than the American mockingbird.
No exotic escapee, the common creature known as Mimus polyglottos is renowned for its ability to mimic the voices of many other birds. “In the David Attenborough bird program,” notes Campbell, “there are amazing birds that mimic the shutter speed of a camera or the sound of a pneumatic drill cutting down trees. I think the bird was disturbed by the car alarmas we areand in its disturbance, it mimicked the car alarm.”
Most of Campbell’s neighbors, as it turns out, are so accustomed to blaming late-night distractions on the demon car alarm that they are unwilling to entertain the notion of an avian imitator. “No, don’t give me that. Those are real car alarms,” says one woman on Lamont Street.
But apparently, the car-alarm bird has also been spotted several blocks south, on Hobart Street NW. “Yes, yes,” says Kenneth Jacobs, making a sandwich at Dos Gringos Café# on Mount Pleasant Street, when asked about the bird. Jacobs says he heard the bird going off three weeks ago from near his home, on the 1700 block of Hobart. “I’m not kidding,” he says. “It was the weirdest thing. I thought it was my neighbor’s alarm clock, but it lasted for, like, two days. And the other thing is, my neighbor heard it, too.”
Mockingbirds, it turns out, are not only well-known for being mimics, but also for singing for more of the day than most birds. “They are certainly quite capable of reproducing the sounds of many other local species of birdsrobins and other sorts of things,” says James Dean, an ornithologist who manages the collection of birds at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. “In the summertime, they are quite aggressive in protecting their nest eggs. Certainly, the mimicking of car alarms is something they could pick up.”
“Oh sure, I’ve heard stories like this before,” says Mark Garland, senior naturalist at the Audubon Naturalist Society. During the summer, in particular, Garland says the birds have been known to imitate “car horns, sirens, and squeaking doorsespecially males that have not found a mate. Part of the reason is for courtship and territoriality. The males pick up sounds around [them]normally of other birds. It’s ingrained in them to respond within the higher range of sounds that birds make.”
Campbell, for her part, says she hasn’t heard the bird since that first night. “I see other mockingbirds in my back yard. I wonder if it will ever return, and whether these mute, tawny creatures that fiddle about in my back garden will ever make a peep.”
But despite her curiosity, Campbell isn’t losing a lot of sleep because she misses the mockingbird. “I love listening to the sounds of birds. Not the traffic, not birds trying to imitate trafficjust birds being themselves,” she says. “In that sense, the car-alarm bird is a travesty.” CP