In Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, it is Atticus who first suggests to Jem and Scout that “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” In Chapter 10, Scout is describing the time Atticus gave his children air-rifles, with the provision that they not shoot mockingbirds. It was okay to shoot bluejays, but “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Asking Maudie Atkinson to explain her father’s remark, Maudie responds as follows:
“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.”
Scout professed to have never before heard Atticus refer to something as a “sin,” but that day he made an exception for mockingbirds. Maudie’s explanation stems from her approach to nature, which Scout sums up as “She loved everything that grew in God’s earth, even the weeds.” Bluejays are notorious for their generally unsociable disposition. They may be nice to look at, but they’re not particularly friendly. Mockingbirds, on the other hand, contribute beauty to the planet, and are to be spared the fate that might befall other species that happen into the gun sights of children with rifles.