As the proverbial wisdom tells us, we’re often challenged by getting exactly what we ask for. I suppose I’ll get my own reminder of that abiding reality when the mockingbird outside my bedroom window gets quieter as the spring deepens.
I’d complained in a column last week that the mocker on our backyard patio was keeping me up at night. In early spring, mockingbirds can sing all night, prompting even the most ardent nature lovers to wonder if this is too much of a good thing. But I’ll be the first one to complain, I bet, when my mockingbird’s singing subsides.
We have Harper Lee to thank, of course, for discouraging any unkind thoughts about mockingbirds. Her celebrated novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” takes its title from a chapter in which a small boy is warned against shooting mockingbirds with his air rifle. “Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ’em,” he’s told. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing 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. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
The passage is a little case study in our tendency to divide the world into groups that are either good or evil. The blue jays get tagged as unmitigated villains, worthy of wholesale destruction, while mockingbirds enjoy status as a protected class. It’s an allegory of sorts for Lee’s larger reflections on racial bigotry.
Lee is also showing us how our attitudes toward other creatures — and, by implication, other humans — can slowly evolve. The thought of killing a blue jay seems strange to most modern readers; they’re beautiful birds, often welcomed these days at suburban backyard feeders. But in farming communities of yesteryear, blue jays got a bad reputation for damaging crops.
Bird artist John James Audubon, who saw quite a few jays during his time in Louisiana, wasn’t a fan. Here’s Audubon: “Who could imagine that a form so graceful, arrayed by nature in a form so resplendent, should harbor so much mischief — that selfishness, duplicity and malice should form the moral accompaniments of so much physical perfection … He is more tyrannical than brave, and like most boasters, domineers over the feeble, dreads the strong, and flies even from his equals.”
When Audubon came to Louisiana, he carried a book of animal fables. The stories seemed to inform Audubon’s idea that birds were either good or bad, with characters capable of making moral judgments.
Today, we think of birds as governed by instinct rather than choice. The blue jay does what he does because he’s wired that way, and the mockingbird sings because a mockingbird can’t do otherwise.
I’ll try to remember that at 3 a.m., wide awake as my mocker sings like there’s no tomorrow.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.