Mock of the Mockingbird

Copyright 2005 Ben S. Pollock

“[Russ A. Charif, a research biologist at Cornell Lab of Ornithology,] said after his talk that the ‘kent’ sounds alone were not conclusive because scientists could not completely rule out a blue jay mimicking the sound of an ivory bill. …” — The New York Times, Aug. 25, 2005.

Yeah, right. I’ve read this story in a few different spots — my Democrat-Gazette flew (pun intended) a correspondent to California to cover this section of the American Ornithologists’ Union meeting — yet no reporter asked follow-up questions. Such as:

From where did the (apparently unsighted) blue jay pick up the “kent” call of the last-seen-70-years-ago ivory-billed woodpecker? Q.E.D., or do I have to put in all the missing steps? Sheesh, peckerwoods, as we used to say in Fort Smith.

Mimics are long gone from the late-night TV variety show so maybe we’re not used to thinking about it. (Leno, Letterman et al aren’t truly talk shows; “variety show” is nicer than “shill show” as essentially all their guests appear only to promote their latest what-evers.) Whither Rich Little and Frank Gorshin? Rich doesn’t get the big stages in Vegas any more, and Frank’s dead. The answer is where are the actors with unique voices? No movie or TV (live) actor (or actress) under 50 has a discernible voice, this side of Sarah Vowell and Holly Hunter or maybe Christian Slater and Adam Sandler.

You pick up the phone and Reese Witherspoon is making a prank call, “Hi, this is Lindsay Lohan”; you wouldn’t know the difference.

And you, you pick up the phone and Brad Pitt is on the horn as a practical joke, “Hi, this is Johnny Depp.” You couldn’t tell one from the other just on the phone — and, ladies, don’t say either will do.

Blue jays picked up the sound of the ivory bill that differentiates it from pileateds — from a loudspeaker in the rowboat of the Cornell boys? No, they carried only recording equipment — and insect repellent. -30-

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