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There are several times where Lee uses the image of the mockingbird in her novel. All of them are significant as they speak of the central meaning of the book.
Mockingbirds are the creatures in the book that only help people. To use the words of Miss Maudie, they only do one thing - sing. They hurt no one and only make music for people to enjoy. This is why it is a sin to kill a mockingbird.
As to why Scout and Jem hear a mockingbird, there is a bit of foreshadowing going on. Like the other figurative mockingbirds that were hurt, notably Tom Robinson, soon Jem and Scout would be hurt as well by Bob Ewell in a vicious attack. In this sense, Scout and Jem are mockingbirds as well. Luckily for them, another mockingbird comes to the rescue and saves them - Boo Radley.
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