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.

Walking with pirates

A week or so before the winter solstice, the bright sunshine lured me out for a long walk, despite the cold air. I took a trail along the edge of the water, and as I passed an alder tree growing out of the rocky bank, I spotted some small birds among the twigs on its far side. I looked through my binoculars and was thrilled to see several American Goldfinches picking the tiny seeds out of the alder cones, which were so thick on the branches that the tree was as festive as any holiday-minded person could desire, at least in my opinion. The little finches were in their winter plumage, which is a soft pale yellowy tan, with wings striped dark brown and light tan, and soft white undersides, and they were clinging on upside-down, or sideways, or whatever it took to get to the seeds, outlined by the shine of the water beyond. And as I was standing there watching them, a little kid on a little bike came riding along, followed by a watchful dad on foot. Just as the kid passed behind me, they said to their dad, “Are they watching birds or pirates?”

I just loved this! Kids and their imaginations! And who knows, I could have been watching pirates! I certainly was after that, at any rate! (Until I got distracted by a kingfisher.)

Not real pirates. If there had been real pirates, I would have run fast. Real fast. But the pirates of my imagination are not violent and ruthless and destructive. They may be wild and self-willed and uninhibited and yes, they may be a bit fierce and dangerous at times, but who hasn’t felt this would be an advantage when confronted with bureaucratic bullying or an unfair attitude or a tedious social restriction? My pirates carry flashy old-fashioned swords, and spout outrageous minced oaths, and wear flamboyant clothes. They are loud and quirky and nonconformist and sometimes even rude. They are the embodiment not of the real political and economic forces that spawn real pirates, but instead of the persistent inner quest for freedom, and self-determination, and independence, and personal authenticity, that I believe we all have at heart.

Yes, I did make the pirates in The Scarlet Tortoise Expedition a little, um, fearsome. Even a little nasty. And they do pose a threat to the non-piratical characters. But mostly they are not really like real pirates. They are something more.

And that’s why I like writing about them. I’m interested in exploring the something more, the strange things that lie beyond the realm of the ordinary. The stuff of the imagination. The place where the world opens up to the great dark mystery of all the things we don’t know. So yes, I am watching pirates. I am keeping a real close eye on them. Because who knows what they might get up to next?

Arrr, matey!

Here is a male American Goldfinch in summer plumage, perched on the edge of a previous incarnation of my feeder. Photo copyright © Mark B. Gibson 2010.

I think a dolly loves me

Yesterday I got out my little toy fir trees, cleared a shelf on my bookcase, and set up a forest scene. I call this the Forest of Possibilities. I put a few small plastic animals among the trees as wild inhabitants, and I gave one tree a string of tiny battery-powered lights and a small white star on top, not for Christmas or any other religious holiday, but to invoke the magic of the winter solstice and the turn of the seasons back toward spring.

I did this last year, too, and it was the start of an obsession with dollies. At first it was just that I added some more animals to my forest. Then a pond made of a pocket mirror. Then it was just that I enjoyed making little trees from things I found, like the smooth green stems from some big-leaf maple prunings or the fallen twigs of white alders bearing both open brown cones and stiff green catkins. I made their foliage out of dismantled fake floral decorations or green feathers. (Note to self: Yes, it was the poisonous lichens causing those migraines! Do not use again!) Pretty soon I was looking up videos online to see how other people made realistic model trees. Then I started looking up model trees for sale, just to see what was out there, and I ran across a whole world of miniature stuff and was hooked. It quickly became apparent that whatever your dolly wanted, your dolly could have. There were miniature lanterns that really lit up. Miniature fireplaces, with little glowing fires in them. There were dollhouse potted plants, and world globes, and typewriters, and microscopes, and little jars of canned fruit. There were people making little tanks full of tropical fish, and little washtubs full of geraniums, and throwing real little ceramic crocks on real little table-top pottery wheels. I watched one video in which someone even made an actual tiny working washing machine! And at the end, they put a tiny pillowcase into it and turned it on, and sure enough, the drum rotated behind its “glass” door! Neat!

And the books! Oh, the books! Don’t get me started on miniature books! (The ones with real pages, I mean. Fake pages are just depressing.)

So of course I dragged the box of dolls out of the closet and revisited all the stuff I had when I was a kid. And I realized that I had always loved miniatures. I just hadn’t known it.

I chose a few dollies, and dressed them, and found them some toys, and some little things for their dollhouse, which (who knows?) they might have some day. I found some videos about how to repair their hair, which had gotten sadly frizzy. I really liked these videos, and I watched them even after I knew that I was not going to be messing around with the tedious job of re-hairing a doll any time soon.

I felt kind of silly about all this. Kind of self-conscious. But then someone I respect said, “Well, dollies are what you make of them, aren’t they?”

So what do I make of them? Well, they’re charming. And they’re fun. And they seem to express what I think and how I feel about things. I give them personalities that embody qualities I value, traits I admire. In their world I have agency, and whether that world is a little bed in a drawer or a small space on a bookshelf, I can give it an order, a beauty, which the real one frequently lacks. I can love my dollies, and I can love myself through them, and thereby transform my life just a little bit. Because sometimes a little bit can be real neat!

Hey, maybe dollies can save the world after all!

Happy Solstice!