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Thomas Jefferson's "First Bird"
Meet Dick, a Northern Mockingbird in the White House
Many United States presidents have preferred dogs, some cats, as their familial "first pets," like Harry Truman, who famously said, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog," and Warren Harding, whose Airedale, Laddie Boy, had his own designated chair for Cabinet meetings.
Other first families, however, have chosen to share their presidential terms with different types of creatures, both domestic and wild.
John Quincy Adams, for one, warmed up to an unnamed American alligator, who resided in the East Room for several months to the delight of White House guests (not), and those oh-so-cuddly silkworms, raised by his wife in the mulberry trees on the grounds. Theodore Roosevelt had a Piebald rat named Jonathan on the presidential property along with a badger called Josiah and Maude the pig, among other more common members of his menagerie. Andrew Jackson had a potty-mouthed parrot named Poll at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, who was so prolific with four-letter words that he got himself kicked out of his beloved owner's funeral.
Like Jackson, Thomas Jefferson was also partial to birds, but his best feathered friend was an apparently affectionate Northern Mockingbird named Dick, who thankfully didn't learn to swear like Poll but did have an extensive repertoire of melodious songs and sounds, which delighted the president. In fact, Dick would follow his friend, oblivious to his political power, hopping up the stairs as Jefferson went to his chamber for a nap while Dick sat on the couch and serenaded him to sleep.
Here, I'd like to tell you a bit more about Dick in particular, some interesting facts about his Mimus polyglottos brethren, and a little about my own meetings with mockingbirds, then send you on your merry way to more Mockingbird and presidential pet fun.
Oh, and about that photo above: That's not actually Dick from the White House ... but it could be his great, great, great (etc.) grandchild.
Jefferson's Favorite Bird
Dick was one of at least four mockingbirds who became part of the third U.S. President's family. In 1772, Dick was the first to move in when Jefferson bought him for five shillings from one of his father-in-law's slaves. He purchased two others from the same source two years later, and he mentions a fourth in his weather memorandum. These were just several of the many songbirds in Jefferson's company during his lifetime.
Yes, I know: today, most of us frown upon making pets of wild birds -- wild animals in general -- and shake our heads in dismay at the thought, let alone the sight, of a wild creature in confinement. In the 18th century, however, colonists were fond of capturing and trying to tame wild animals, including deer, squirrels and songbirds. (See: Out of this Century: "Wild" Colonial American Pets) In fact, the Northern mockingbird population sunk to an all-time low along the east coast of the United States in the 1800s because so many were captured to keep as pets. Thankfully, their numbers have rebounded to a great extent since then.
About the mockingbird, Jefferson wrote to his daughter, Martha....
Source: Mr. Jefferson and His Constant Companions from the Virginia Quarterly Review
More About Mockingbirds at Monticello and Beyond
- There were no mockingbirds at Monticello, Jefferson's 5,000-acre mountaintop plantation, when he first acquired Dick and friends. Today, mockingbirds are thriving there.
- Jefferson, said to be the first president to bring a pet to the White House, kept Dick in his private study, where he often let the bird out of his cage, hanging in the window among the roses and geraniums, so he could fly around the room and sit on Jefferson's desk.
See Dick's cage in the window in artist Peter Waddel's painting A Bird that Whistles In Jefferson's Cabinet, 1803, owned by the White House Historical Association. (You can roll over highlighted areas of the painting to learn more.)
- Dick would ride on Jefferson's shoulder and learned to take bits of food from the president's lips.
- The first mockingbirds to come to Monticello apparently had a relatively limited song list, which they'd acquired from their former home in the woods and fields of the Richmond-Petersburg region of Virginia.
It is said that Jefferson expanded his mockingbirds' range of songs by providing them musical instruction. He performed duets with Dick, playing violin while his favorite mockingbird sang along.
- Mockingbirds that accompanied Jefferson on a trans-Atlantic voyage learned to mimic the sound of the creaking of the ship's timbers.
- Some of Jefferson's mockingbirds had singing lessons before they came to live with him. Two of them would belt out popular American, Scottish, and French melodies along with their imitations of other birds.
Primary source: The Jefferson Monticello
The Many Voices of Northern Mockingbirds
Listen to the Northern Mockingbird Sing - Enjoy two minutes of a mockingbird medley
What do you notice about the sounds and patterns?
Fun Facts About the Northern Mockingbird's Songs
If you hear maybe 10 or 20 birds singing and chattering loudly outside your window or while strolling through the forest or fields, each taking their turn and repeating their distinct sounds 2 to 6 times in succession, you may be hearing a mockingbird.
- Mockingbirds mimic other birds. They also mimic many other types of sounds, like music created by humans and musical instruments, whistling, machinery, car alarms, barking dogs and squeaky gates, to name just a small list of a mockingbird's potential repertoire.
- Mockingbird songs can last 20 seconds or even longer.
- Male Northern Mockingbirds sing in the springtime, while both males and females sing in Fall.
- Female mockingbirds usually sing more quietly than the males.
- Mockingbirds sing both day and night.
- Northern Mockingbirds also make harsh, raspy sounds when warding off nest predators or chasing other mockingbirds.
- It's said that mockingbirds can make up to 200 different sounds (one source even said up to 400), with the males being more prolific singers. Mockingbirds continue learning new songs throughout their lives.
- Males appear to have two separate sets of songs -- one for the spring and another for the fall season.
Listen to a Mockingbird Immitate a Car Alarm - You can even hear it mimic the chirp when the alarm is shut off!
Play the Call of the Northern Mockingbird
From the album Relaxing Songs of Birds, this 5-minute song of the Northern Mockingbird is compatible with MP3 Players including iPods, iTunes and Windows Media Player.
Download this song or the whole album now from Amazon.....
More Interesting Trivia About the Northern Mockingbird
Did you know....?
- Mockingbirds mate in the spring, then build nests in bushes and low trees. A mockingbird couple often has more than one nest under their care at a time. The male will watch over fledglings in one nest while the female sits on a new batch of eggs in another. How efficient!
- In the 19th century, people kept so many mockingbirds as caged pets, removing fledglings from nests or trapping adults and then selling them in cities, that the birds nearly vanished from parts of the East Coast. Exceptional singers could sell for as much as much as $50, which was a hefty sum back then.
- A Northern Mockingbird's summer diet consists of mainly insects -- beetles, worms, ants, wasps and bees, butterflies, grasshoppers and more -- but switches to mostly a wide variety of berries and other fruit in fall and winter. A mockingbird will sometimes eat small lizards. They've also been observed drinking sap from cuts on recently pruned trees.
- The Northern Mockingbird is aggressive year-round, with females typically fighting off other female mockingbirds, while the males confront the male intruders. They're also territorial around other bird species as well as domestic animals, like dogs and cats.
- Some of the northernmost populations of Northern Mockingbirds may migrate south for the winter.
- The Northern Mockingbird's Latin name translates to "many-tongued mimic."
A Book for Bird-Lovers who Especially Love the Mockingbird
A fascinating bird that can fill a book all on its own
Learn all about the mockingbird in this well-received book in which the author fills us in on the mating, nesting and feeding behavior of the mockingbird, describes the "business" of caged birds in the 18th and 19th centuries and the attempt during that time period to establish the mockingbird beyond its normal range, discusses the bird's aggressive tendencies and examines mockingbird folklore and literature.
The Northern Mockingbird and Me
Encounters on the Appalachian Trail
I was sleeping peacefully in the lean-to after more than 18 miles of hiking up and down mountains, probably dreaming of the chocolate milkshake (or two) I'd enjoy when I reached the next town, when I was rudely awakened by a siren.
Or was it a Screech Owl?
As I sat up and shook off the fuzzy-headed sleepies, peering into the dark forest, I was sure it was an Eastern Towhee. And then I could have sworn I heard a bit of classical music. What the heck?
Turns out -- so explained one of my fellow Appalachian Trail thru-hikers who'd also been asleep in the shelter -- that was my first encounter (that I'm aware of) with a Northern mockingbird, who'd decided to serenade us in the middle of the night from a branch nearby.
The medley continued. At first, I thought it was fascinating and sweet.
The songs and sounds went on even longer, as my fascination turned to something more like bewilderment.
Then, about twenty minutes later, bewilderment turned to exasperation and a stream of profanity directed at said bird.
By the time dawn rolled around. Mr. Mockingbird finally decided to shut up, and I wearily dragged my sore muscles out of my sleeping bag and prepared to hike on for yet another day.
That may have been my first meeting with a Northern Mockingbird, but it was hardly the last. I swear, that same bird followed me all the way to Maine and the end of the Appalachian Trail. A lovely, entertaining creature that had a knack for bringing out my darker side.
Test Your Knowledge: Take the Northern Mockingbird Quiz
10 questions about this very vocal bird
Give this little quiz and try, then see how you did and find out the correct answers when you're finished.
Thomas Jefferson's Other Pets
Jefferson's Animal Companions
In addition to his mockingbirds and other kept songbirds, Thomas Jefferson made pets (*clearing my throat as a sign of disapproval*) of two bear cubs, a gift from Lewis and Clark.
He was also rather fond of dogs, bringing three Briards (French shepherds) -- Bergère and her two puppies -- with him on the Clermont when he crossed the Atlantic in November, 1789.
A number of other Briards came to live at the Jefferson household over the years. Jefferson used these dogs to guard his flock of Merino sheep at Monticello, but they also became household companions.
The Briards of Monticello didn't move the White House, however, when Jefferson was elected president. Instead, he left them home on his huge Virginia farm where they were well cared for and could happily continue to herd sheep, which I'm sure they'd have preferred to politics.
This is a Briard, the type of French shepherd Jefferson preferred
Some fun kids' books....
Presidential Pets is an easy reader with photos and illustrations.
From Amazon: "This inside look at the White House's animal residents features a rollicking, rhyming verse for each commander-in-chief's pets, accompanied by cool facts, presidential stats, and laugh-out-loud cartoon art."
From ponies, puppies, and cats to parakeets, sheep, and even an alligator, you'll read stories and see 200 photos of presidential pets as part of everyday life in the White House. Author Jennifer Pickens reveals how pets have played an important role in the White House throughout the decades in this humorous, charming and poignant book.
More Reading About Presidential Pets
- American Presidents and their Dogs
Interesting facts about presidential pooches, from George Washington to Barack Obama.
© 2013 Deb Kingsbury