Mozart’s Starling

I’ve just finished a most unusual and delightful book by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, entitled Mozart’s Starling. It is a dual telling of pet starlings- Mozart’s starling and Haupt’s starling. These wild birds apparently make charming pets- they mimic sounds and can learn to talk. Mozart buys his starling from a bird seller in 1784 after hearing it whistle a version of his Piano Concerto no.17 in G Major. Mozart has just finished composing this concerto, and it had only been performed in small settings, so he is amazed and fascinated to hear this bird’s song version. Haupt and her husband take a baby starling from its nest to raise as part of her research into Mozart’s bird. Before you get your shackles up- as terrible as this sounds, let me say that there is an open hunting season on starlings. They were brought over from Europe in 1890-1891 by the American Acclimatization Society who decided that all birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s works should live in North America too. The Society released a 100 starlings in Central Park. As with many non-native species of plants and animals, starlings are considered an invasive and pesky. They can decimate a field of crops in minutes and are very much despised in agricultural regions of the US. So Haupt and hubby “saved” their starling from a possible early death. Their pet’s name is Carmen, and she is a delight.

Haupt as a self-described ecophilosopher and naturalist as well as a music-loving violin and piano player, thus her interest in Mozart. She does a good job researching Mozart’s life and career. There are many references to Mozart’s bird in letters and journals, but nowhere could Haupt find the bird’s name. She nicknames his bird, Star for the purpose of the book. Haupt writes, “…the more I have discovered of Mozart’s personality and the more I learn about starlings by living with Carmen, the more I find the similarities between Mozart and Star to be more extreme than I’d ever dreamed: the unusual cleverness, the playful disobedience, the propensity for almost ceaseless chatter. Both were fluttering and curious and disorderly. Both were incapable of being still and quiet in a world so full of sound and happenings and beauty. Both shared the impulse to make wild, original, constant music.”

Birdsong has inspired music lovers and composers since the beginning of time. Ornithologists have long studied this connection, and one ornithologist discovered that many birds sing in the same scale as Western music. Others have found that some birds sing in perfect intervals. Haupt says, “Both music and birdsong flit past our tympanic membranes, connect with our brains, brighten our minds, and transport our spirits…Mozart found inspiration in the presence of a common bird. For us, too, the song of the world so often rises in places we had not thought to look.”

As a bird lover with no real knowledge of starlings, I am fascinated with the characteristics of this bird. They are very social creatures, gregarious, and communicative. Carmen learned to imitate Haupt’s coffee grinder, would sing along when her daughter played her cello or Haupt played her violin. Haupt never could get Carmen to learn any of Mozart’s piano concerto that his own starling would mimic. Another thing that fascinated me is that a flock of starlings is called a murmuration and can number up to tens of thousands of birds. Haupt beautifully describes their “flock dances” as “bewitching…mysterious, graceful, spellbinding dance-clouds.” How do thousands of birds swirl so beautifully in perfect coordination? Many studies have been done, and many theories offered. Haupt writes about one renown study, “…the change in the movement of one bird will affect the seven birds closest to it. These seven birds will each affect seven more birds, and their movements will ripple, scaling rapidly, through the flock…starling murmurations might be the most visible and also the most winsome iteration of biophysical criticality, a mirror into deeper, unseen, all-embracing secrets of life that have yet to be understood.”

To close, I’ll end with Haupt- “…we are not a lone pair of hands or eyes or a single voice…we do not create in isolation but bring our gift, the art of our lives, to one another, to the earth. We each touch the seven starlings closest to our own murmuration, and the ripple spreads faster than we could have imagined…The gift offered is different for each but all are equal in grandeur.”

ponderings: unknown source of murmuration photo

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