Which birds are the best mimics?

April 1, 2009
Northern Mockingbirds are one of the best mimics in North America. Photo by Lindell Dillon via Birdshare. Northern Mockingbirds are one of the best mimics in North America. Photo by Lindell Dillon via Birdshare.

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Several birds could make the claim to be the world’s best mimic. In North America master mimics include mockingbirds, thrashers, and catbirds; all of which are in the family Mimidae, so named because of this family’s skill at mimicking other species. The Brown Thrasher can sing up to 2,000 different songs and may be the champion mimic in North America. European Starlings are also accomplished mimics, just like their relatives the mynas, and are known to include imitations of other birds, but also just about anything else, including motorcycles and tea kettles. Blue Jays can mimic several species of hawks.

Parrots are especially adept at mimicking sounds and human language. Unlike songbirds, which produce sounds by vibrating membranes in two different syrinxes, parrots have only one syrinx, located at the bottom of the windpipe. This is somewhat similar to humans, who also have only one sound-producing organ, the larynx. Parrots also have long, muscular tongues that may be used in modifying sounds. Parrots also have forebrain areas involved in vocal learning and control of vocalization that are not found in other birds.

African Gray Parrots are one of the most accomplished mimics. A bird named “Prudle”, a male African gray, is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having a vocabulary of more than 1,000 words. The Animal Planet network featured an African Gray Parrot that lives up to his name—Einstein.

In this video, listen to our audio curator, Greg Budney, point out the many birds (and even a frog) mimicked by one very accomplished Gray Catbird.