Monday, March 23, 2015

Whistling bobwhite: the birds of To Kill A Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird is a tale of growing up and encountering the world, told through the eyes of Scout, or Jean-Louise Finch, a young girl in Alabama. Birds are mostly part of the background setting during Scout’s account, but birds are also critical to the metaphor that gives the book its title.

It was only fitting to open with an image of a mockingbird, as the title introduces the species, but we will get to mockingbirds in a bit. The first bird species we actually encounter in the book is the Purple Martin.

"In summertime, twilights are long and peaceful. Often as not, Miss Maudie and I would sit silently on her porch, watching the sky go from yellow to pink as the sun went down, watching flights of martins sweep low over the neighborhood and disappear behind the schoolhouse rooftops." (chapter 5)

Purple Martins, male

Purple Martins are a species that catches its prey- winged insects- in the air. As such, Purple Martins are birds of late spring and summer when insects are abuzz in plenty. Males and females are dimorphic, with only the males displaying the deep blues. It is also possible that Scout was observing other swallow species as they can appear very similar to the unaided eye and the name “martin” may have been the locally used name for some or all swallows. Names are assigned by people, and names, especially historically, are not universally standardized. For example, the Bank Swallow, as it’s known in North America, is called the Sand Martin in English in European and African field guides. 

Purple Martin, female

The sounds of birds are just as important as the sight of birds in To Kill a Mockingbird. We never see the Northern Bobwhite, a quail species that would have inhabited the weedy fields and edge habitats in the rural parts of Alabama. It scares easily, is hunted by humans, and in my experience, is often more heard than seen. Jem and Dill used the sound to communicate discreetly when sneaking out.

“We leaped over the low wall that separated Miss Rachel's yard from our driveway. Jem whistled bob-white and Dill answered in the darkness." (chapter 6)
“We leaped over the driveway wall, cut through Miss Rachel's side yard and went to Dill's window. Jem whistled bob-white. Dill's face appeared at the screen..." (chapter 15)

Northern Bobwhite

Of course, when someone utters a quiet statement, such as “’Yonder’s some Finches...’” (Chapter 14), you might hope for a nice American Goldfinch, House Finch, or maybe a Purple Finch. And a place like Finch’s Landing might be a prime spot to check for siskins, crossbills, or a redpoll. In this story, the only finches are the Finches, and include Atticus, Uncle Jack, Jem and Scout (and one historical Finch- Simon). 

Two common birds that Scout likely knew by sight become relevant when they receive air rifles as Christmas presents and shooting advice. Both Blue Jays and Northern Mockingbirds were protected by the Migratory Bird Act of 1918, but it seems that the purview of this law did not yet reach everyone’s backyards  (and probably still doesn’t). Chapter 10 references these birds in several instances and sets up the title of the book. 

Blue Jay

“When he gave us our air-rifles Atticus wouldn’t teach us to shoot. Uncle Jack instructed us in the rudiments thereof; he said Atticus wasn’t interested in guns. Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.
“Your father’s right,” she said. “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.” (chapter 10)

"I went to the back yard and found Jem plugging away at a tin can, which seemed stupid with all the bluejays around. (chapter 10)"

Later in the chapter, as the kids learn more of their father’s history through neighborhood stories, we encounter an additional bird reference.

“That’s what I said, Jem Finch. Guess you’ll change your tune now. The very idea, didn’t you know his nickname was Ol‘ One-Shot when he was a boy? Why, down at the Landing when he was coming up, if he shot fifteen times and hit fourteen doves he’d complain about wasting ammunition.” (Chapter 10)

Mourning Dove

There are a variety of doves in Alabama including the Rock Dove, White-winged Dove, Mourning Dove, Common Ground-dove, and Eurasian Collared Dove. So which dove was young Atticus decimating? We can rule out the Eurasian Collared Dove as it did not make it to North America until the late 1970s or 1980s according to AllAbout Birds. The Passenger Pigeon would have been in steep declines and possibly extinct by the time Atticus was shooting in the late 1800s or early 1900s. Although it is possible to be the Rock Dove (Rock Pigeon, the common pigeon of towns and cities), most people I have ever met worldwide have called this species a pigeon and not a dove. Let’s rule it out- why wouldn't an Alabama kid call a pigeon a pigeon and a dove a dove?

Using Christmas Bird Count (CBC) data, we can make some inferences. There were only a few CBC counts in Alabama until the 1940s which limits this analysis, but Mourning Doves were the only recorded dove species on CBCs in the 1930s. And just imagine that: there were folks out counting birds for the Christmas Bird Count in at least one area in Alabama during the very same winters that Scout would have experienced the story.

From 2013 CBC data, there were 4,172 mourning doves statewide to just 144 white-winged doves, and 24 common ground-doves.  The white-winged dove can be found around people but is still pretty sparsely found around Monroe County, Alabama (where the story took place), judging from current Ebird reports where two people have reported them in their backyards. The common ground-dove is likewise very uncommon and only sporadically reported around the area. The mourning dove is common and is reported on Ebird by multiple observers all over the county. It seems that young Atticus would have been plugging away at mourning doves in such abundance, not the other possibilities.

Thanks if you are still reading, I appreciate your commitment to the thorough analysis of a dove reference. Two other bird references, in both chapter 10 before Atticus shoots the rabid dog and in chapter 21 before the jury returns a verdict about Tom Robinson, Scout helps define the setting of pivotal moments when all other motions and sounds seem to have halted, including the vocalizations of mockingbirds.
"Nothing is more deadly than a deserted, waiting street. The trees were still, the mockingbirds were silent, the carpenters at Miss Maudie’s house had vanished." (chapter 10)
"The feeling grew until the atmosphere in the courtroom was exactly the same as a cold February morning, when the mockingbirds were still, and the carpenters had stopped hammering on Miss Maudie’s new house, and every wood door in the neighborhood was shut as tight as the doors of the Radley Place." (chapter 21)

As we proceed through the story, birds are still part of the setting but are also tied to deeper themes. An editorial after Tom Robinson's death recalls the shooting advice the kids received earlier but extends it to all birds and condemns the circumstances of Tom Robinson.

“He likened Tom’s death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children, and Maycomb thought he was trying to write an editorial poetical enough to be reprinted in The Montgomery Advertiser.” (chapter 25)

Songbirds include a great variety of birds that Scout might have encountered, including mockingbirds, blue jays, and purple martins but also warblers, cardinals, robins, bluebirds and many other familiar rural/yard birds.

The next quote is full of bird references and again invokes the sounds of mockingbirds.

“High above us in the darkness a solitary mocker poured out his repertoire in blissful unawareness of whose tree he sat in, plunging from the shrill kee, kee of the sunflower bird to the irascible qua-ack of a blue jay, to the sad lament of Poor Will, Poor Will, Poor Will.” (chapter 28)

We have four bird species referenced in the previous line: the mocker (Northern Mockingbird), the sunflower bird, the Blue Jay, and the Poorwill.

“Poor will” is an interesting reference because Common Poorwills, which sing “Poor will, poor will, poor will” do not occur in Alabama. While the Whip-poor-will does, it sings, “whip-poor-will”. Listen here to the Poorwill and the Whip-poor-will (try opening them in different browsing tabs and playing them simultaneously). Common Poorwills live in the West and no one has recorded the species on eBird in Alabama or with the Alabama Ornithological Society. It would be unlikely, thus, that Scout would have ever heard a bird singing Poorwill poorwill poor will but whip poor will, whip poor will. However, she is talking about a mockingbird. Mockingbirds do not really migrate, so it is also unlikely that the mockingbird could actually be imitating a poorwill. It seems most likely that if Scout heard what she said, the mocker is just doing a partial imitation of the Whip-poor-will (or the author used the other species for effect, as common and poor are both statuses discussed in the book and relevant to its themes of injustice, class, race, and social identity).

Eastern Whip-poor-will (museum specimen)

As for the sunflower bird, an electronic exchange on this Audubon chapter’s discussion board previously addressed the question but did not offer a firm conclusion. They suggested the reference is to the American goldfinch because it is yellow and is often found on sunflowers. I agree that there is a good chance of this, as many bird names are based on an observation of where it is seen or what it suggests to its namer. As they note, however, the "shrill kee, kee" does not sound like a goldfinch. Based on its bright yellow and proximity to sunflowers it could also be an eastern meadowlark, but again the sound doesn't match. I think there is a reasonable chance that it is a northern flicker, which in flight flashes bright yellow-gold under its wings and sounds pretty similar. It calls “kyeer” (David Allen Sibley's description) or “keew” (Cornell Lab of Ornithology's description). There were not yet many books that detailed birds for the general public at the time of the story, but Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide came out in 1934 and would have been probably the book most available to Scout in 1936. Instead, regional names would have likely prevailed at the time, and “sunflower bird” may be one of those alternate names that has not survived (although it does not turn up in searches of the USGS Obsolete English Names of North American Birds and Their Modern Equivalents).

Sunflower bird? American Goldfinch (male)

If you lived in Alabama in the 1920s-1960s and know of a bird called the “sunflower bird,” or have an old text that clarifies, please let me know!

Sunflower bird? Northern Flicker (female)

The final bird reference is to the northern mockingbird. Scout understands the adults’ request to keep a secret about Arthur (Boo) Radley and says so by comparing the situation to the earlier shooting advice.

“Well, it’d be sort of like shootin‘ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?” (Chapter 30)

Northern Mockingbird, with its characteristic white wing patches
and tail feathers shown in flight


  1. As a bird and literary enthusiast I am pretty keen on this post. I enjoyed it a lot, stumbling upon it while seeking out more info on the "sunflower bird," as I revisit this classic book. I was racking my brain, but couldn't come up with a bird that seemed to match ideally. I'm glad to hear I wasn't the only one! Interesting post. Thanks!