Another reason not to kill a mockingbird

About a third of the way through Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch, who we’re told didn’t play poker, fish, drink or smoke, counseled his son Jem about the proper use of the air rifles he and his sister Scout had been given for Christmas:

“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.”

Miss Maudie, an elderly neighbor of the Finches, later elaborated:

“Your father’s right… 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.”

So I looked up the Spanish word for mockingbird and came up with “sinsonte” (what we used in Cuba) and “zentzontle” or “centzontle” (used in Mexico). For a sample of a mockingbird’s virtuosic singing, and some background chatter in Spanish, click here.

Nezahualcóyotl, a fearsome 
fighter and  also a poet and
 renowned architect in
pre-Columbian Mexico. 

I asked Félix if he’d seen any on our ranch, and he launched into a story—typical of his amazing mind, curiosity and memory—that wended through the history of Nezahualcóyotl (1402-1472), a great king, poet, architect and thinker who ruled the ancient pre-Columbian city-state of Tetzcuco, east of today’s Mexico City, and whose face appears on Mexico’s one-hundred peso banknote.

Félix also shook his head in disgust as he mentioned how, thanks to the greed and ignorance of modern-day Mexicans, these neat little birds are becoming ever more rare.

Nezahualcóyotl was quite a guy indeed. Political leader, architect, prodigious lover—he is said to have fathered one hundred and ten children with a number of, I imagine, quite exhausted concubines.

More important he was regarded as a wise man, patron of the arts and accomplished poet. Mexico’s one-hundred peso note not only features his fearsome visage, but also a lovely little five-line poem:

I love the song of the mockingbird,
     Bird of four-hundred voices,
  I love the color of the jadestone
    And the intoxicating scent of flowers,
But more than all I love my brother, man. 

Art and commerce on the same page. 

Félix pointed this out, which appears in ever-smaller type so the last line is unreadable without a magnifying glass. He also knew about Nazahualcóyotl, though not many details about his life. I downloaded a brief biography in Spanish that his wife could read to his kids. Félix is a slow reader.

But Félix knew all about the cenzontles and their beautiful singing that could mimic any sounds around. He also told me they are becoming ever rarer because of the cenzontles’ habit of fiercely defending their brood, which some kids take a clue to destroy the nests.

Renaissance man manqué. 

Also, folks trap cenzontles and sell them at the Tuesday Market in San Miguel. Growing scarcity, according to Félix, has pushed the price up to five hundred pesos, or about thirty-five dollars, a high price indeed.

The scarcer they become, the higher the price, in a spiral that doesn’t bode well for the local mockingbird population.

He said he’d seen a few around a bird bath station we’ve set up that includes bird seed and chunks of peanut butter mixed with seed. Félix also said we may have three nests on the lower side of our ranch, and tomorrow we’ll investigate—from a distance, with binoculars.

After all this, I felt bad for the mockingbirds, which are indeed birds of four hundred voices put on this earth for no other reason but to delight us with their ever-changing singing.

I also felt sad about Félix, who is close to thirty years old. With his smarts and incisive curiosity: What would he be if his formal education had gone beyond a meager sixth grade in rural Mexico?


9 thoughts on “Another reason not to kill a mockingbird

  1. If he fathered a hundred and ten children I imagine it quite exhausted him as well as the concubines. ;)What a delightful person Felix sounds like! Hearing his tales of the mockingbird makes me smile. Thank you both.


  2. I pulled out my bird books to check the ranges of the various species of mockingbirds in Mexico. It appears their range includes my piece of tropical birdom. But I do not recall seeing one here. I should head out on an expedition.


  3. Anonymous

    Here in Arizona, we call the mockingbird “Chonte.” That is probably an Indian term that made its way into Spanish.Catch a mockingbird for a Mexican woman, and she will love you for life.Robert GillPhoenix, AZ


  4. I'm no ornithologist but mockingbirds are supposed to be fairly plain, blue and gray. There's a Mexican mockingbird, though, that is blue (at least according to the picture, I've never seen a live one). Their singing is amazing. I might have to put on my hearing aids in addition to the binoculars!


  5. I have a mockingbird that lives in a tree quite close to where I can view it. I love to watch him switch his tail about when he's irritated or sees our cats. I've heard his children tweeting in his nest so here in the Yucatan we seem to have more coming right along.


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