Mozart had a pet starling

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been surprised by a puzzling bird call and said something like “Isn’t this a strange place to find a killdeer?” or “I had no idea there were meadowlarks around here,” only to look up and spy a gaggle of starlings perched on a telephone wire or in the top of a tree, quite obviously the source of the sound. I take this as an invitation to stop and listen to one of the most accomplished mimics in nature. Unlike many birds, starlings continue learning new songs throughout their life, and I have heard long sequences composed of many different bird calls strung together, rendered so accurately that each one can be clearly identified.

So I was interested to find a book on my library’s new-book shelf called Mozart’s Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. She got the inspiration for the book one day when she was banging on her window trying to scare away some pesky starlings. They flew up, and their plumage, which is a wonderful iridescent purply black peppered with bright sparkles, caught the light and riveted her attention. She recalled that Mozart had kept a pet starling. Then she realized that the music on the Pandora station she was listening to at that very moment was actually Mozart’s. Her imagination was fired. She started researching, and observing starlings instead of scaring them away, but she quickly decided that the only way to really know what it was like for Mozart to live with a starling was to have one of her own. So she did. And this book is the intertwined story of the two starlings, Haupt’s bird Carmen and Mozart’s bird Star, living in differing ages and cultures, but sharing the same nature and biology.

Carmen the starling perches on the author’s hand.

I was fascinated to learn about the complexity and individuality of their songs, about their playful mischief, about their deep affectionate bonds with their human companions. I was intrigued to learn about the influence Mozart’s bird likely had on his music. And I was also fascinated to learn that we share with birds many overlapping genes for brain areas that deal with vocal learning—more than we share with other primates.

Starlings are a valued native bird in Vienna, but many of my fellow American birdwatchers feel strongly that starlings are the villains of the piece, because here they are an introduced species that displaces native birds and causes a lot of serious agricultural damage. Haupt deplores this as much as anyone, but she also advocates for a more nuanced, accurate, multilayered understanding of starlings, one that does not dishonor our own nature as intelligent creative beings. She writes, “The place we are left to inhabit in our thinking about starlings is a complicated one…Do I resent them as aggressive invaders? Of course. And do I love them? Their bright minds, their sparkling beauty, their unique consciousness, their wild starling voices?…Yes, yes, I do.”

This book is beautifully written. It reads like a novel. A few weeks after I read it the first time, I picked it up and read it again. I put it down with the feeling that it will reward even more re-readings. I enjoyed my encounter with Haupt’s persistent curiosity, her humanity, her empathy. She describes raising Carmen from a tiny chick whose nest was slated for destruction to an adult bird who shares the family home. She details what is known about Star, including the funeral Mozart staged when Star died and the poem he wrote for the occasion. She writes perceptively about starling consciousness, about how we experience music and the passage of time, about Mozart’s life in Vienna and his unusually shaped ear. I was especially interested in her understanding of the sources of art and inspiration. She writes, “…the earth and its beings are extravagantly wild, full of unexpected wonders…when I manage to hush my own voice and just listen, I discover that Carmen has become not just part of the story, but the storyteller, whispering in my ear, telling me what needs to be written, to be spoken, to be sung into the world.”

Starlings very rarely visit my feeder, but one came by just the other day, right after I had read this book for the second time. It perched in a tree and looked around, scoping things out. As I gazed up at it, I realized suddenly how much my perception of starlings had changed. Now I was ready to observe it openly as a living creature with which I have much in common. I wasn’t able to observe much, because it flew away after a few minutes without coming down to the feeder, but I felt enriched. Not just by the visitation, but by my own expanded awareness.