Lucy McRobert: mimics


A few weeks ago, a video appeared on our village Facebook group. A local lady was astounded to discover that she had a new visitor to her garden – a Jackdaw that could 'talk'. It perched atop the feeders, chattering clear as a bell: 'Hello! Hello! Hello!'

A few months ago, I would have found this merely delightful – corvids are, after all, wonderfully intelligent – but I have just started a new job with The Sound Approach, so bird vocalisations are at the front of my mind. I've also become aware of how one dimensional my birding has been, not to mention daunted by how much there is to learn.

One area I'm intrigued by is mimicry. How did our village Jackdaw learn to 'talk', and why? I assume it had been hand-reared, so an insistent 'hello!' would have resulted in food, and other birds have learned similar techniques. Many parrots can obviously be trained to 'speak', while other species, such as Fork-tailed Drongo, have famously learned to trick Meerkats out of a meal by mimicking their alarm calls, causing them to run for cover and abandon their food.

Mimicry has also revealed unknown secrets about bird migration routes and population ranges; for one species, say a Marsh Warbler, to learn to mimic another, it must cross paths with it at some point throughout the year, either at breeding or wintering grounds, or on migration. This is expanding our knowledge of how certain species move around and interact with each other. The bird must also deem the noise worthy of learning; presumably a varied and substantial repertoire leads to a higher success rate when finding a mate or defending a territory.

This autumn on Scilly, a bird was heard to call and was identified as a Eurasian Nuthatch – a mega for the islands. On closer analysis, could this have been a Cetti's Warbler or even a Common Starling? I wonder how many birders have been hoodwinked by something as commonplace as a starling – one of my local birds favoured mewing Common Buzzard and screeching car alarm at 6.30 am every morning.

A mimicking Jackdaw got Lucy wondering about similar behaviour among birders (Carl Bovis).

Human nature

Mimicry is also relatable. Every day, humans alter their personas or mimic other traits, either to entertain, learn or appear wiser than they perhaps are. I've always enjoyed listening to birders at twitches discussing specific identification features; they seem to know it all, before you realise they're repeating verbatim a conversation they've overheard further down the line. I don't mean that as an insult at all – we all do it, and that's how we learn, but it's rare to hear a birder admitting they don't have the foggiest about what they're looking at.

Some take the satire further, and the birding community has, thankfully, always had a sense of humour about itself. I recently delved into the old issues of Knot BB, alternating between laughing out loud and feeling horrified by the tongue-in-cheek commentary and outrageous ridicule. Various blogs have gone in and out of fashion, some very funny and some dancing along the edge of cruelty in their determination to mimic or mock well-known birders. 

One common factor between these, no matter what channel, is anonymity: the satirist often hiding behind a false name and avatar profile picture. Twitter (or X) is scattered with these accounts; fake personas created to tease, mimic or antagonise birders. One thing that strikes me about one recent (unnamed) account is how sharp the identification is. Maybe it's easier to be confident with bold identifications when it doesn't matter when you get it wrong (anonymous accounts lack the accountability of someone with a reputation at risk) but this birder is seriously good. Scathing to the point of cruelty at times, but on point when it comes to birds.

BirdForum has a few of these accounts, and personally I find them intimidating. Young female birders in the UK don't have the privilege of anonymity as there are comparatively few of us. It's much easier for male birders to hide behind personas without any accountability. In comparison, the Dutch equivalent insists on people using their real names. The few trolls, the drongos of the human world if you will, I have encountered as a birder have all hidden behind fake profile pictures – either birds or avatars. This is a shame, as I'd love to say 'hey' at a twitch.


  • This column first appeared in the December 2023 edition of Birdwatch. To be the first to read the magazine each month, take out a subscription to Birdwatch, or get the magazine alongside your bird news by subscribing to either Bird News Ultimate (paper magazine) or Bird News Ultimate Plus (digital access).
Written by: Lucy McRobert

Lucy McRobert is a wildlife author and communications professional, as well as a Birdwatch columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @LucyMcRobert1