Coming from the East Coast to Southern California as a student in 1958, one of the most shocking things was to hear mockingbirds singing at night. In my home town, birds had the decency to go to sleep at night, as other civilized creatures do.
Now, sixty years later, I’m still not used to the mockingbird’s brazen behavior. The last few nights, a male has been singing loudly and boldly just outside our bedroom window, without seeming to take a breath, right through til daybreak.
Well, I did a little research, and I found out something surprising. As one student of animal behavior puts it: “Mockingbirds are not singing out of joy or pleasure, as is commonly believed. Much of the time, they sing out of desperation.”* He goes on to explain that a male mockingbird is actually defending two territories: one is the tree or shrub occupied by his mate, whom he’s defending against rival males that may be in the area; the other, usually larger, territory is his feeding area, which is crucial for his ability to find enough insects, seeds, etc. to feed the chicks he and his mate hope to raise during the nesting season. His incessant noise is a matter of survival. His nonstop song includes imitations of all the sounds that have threatened him recently, including the trills of other bird species, the sound of a prowling cat and the squeak of a noisy hinge. He’s not celebrating joyfully; he’s whistling in the dark out of fear. This knowledge made me much more sympathetic toward my little gray friend.
While I was thinking about this, an old song lyric came to my mind, which I soon identified as a Beatles song from the 1960s, “Blackbird Singing in the Dead of Night.” Maybe Paul McCartney, the song’s author, knew about some species of black bird that had the same behavior as mockingbirds in California. Not really. His song was a metaphor for what he saw happening in the Civil Rights movement in America. McCartney explained this to one of his biographers: “I had in mind a black woman, rather than a bird. Those were the days of the civil rights movement, which all of us cared passionately about, so this was really a song from me to a black woman, experiencing these problems in the States: ‘Let me encourage you to keep trying, to keep your faith, there is hope.'”**
If you want to feel nostalgic, you can listen to Paul sing his song here.
The beautiful lyrics are:
Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly.
All your life you were only waiting for this moment to arise
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
Black bird fly, black bird fly
Into the light of the dark black night
There’s a verse in the Bible that talks about the scared-bird feeling we’re all familiar with. Psalm 11:1 says:
In the Lord I take refuge. How can you say to me,
“Flutter like a bird to the mountain”?
The psalmist is under attack, and his friends tell him that it’s time to get away to safety, just as a bird in his region of Palestine would quickly escape to the cave in a cliff face where its nest is. But he objects, “No, the Lord is my safe cave; he will shelter me.” This is very reassuring to us scared birds, because even after our liberation into flight, we are still unable to see the dangers ahead in “the dark black night,” without “the light” Paul McCartney mentions in his enigmatic final line. Whatever McCartney meant by “the light,” for believers,
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
That’s something to sing about!
— Pastor George Van Alstine
** Barry Miles, Many Years from Now