THIS SPRING afternoon, a steady drizzle falls from a low ceiling of cloud. It brings oils to the surface of street and sidewalk, glazing the ubiquitous brick. At the end of my block, a starling hunkers down on a telephone wire, its feathers damp with an iridescent sheen of purple, blue, and green. Rain drips from its yellow beak. I whistle a tune as I approach, and the bird listens, arching its neck and cocking its head slightly from side to side. Another wings toward me from down the alley, tail tilted downward, wings compact and slick. The rhythm of a starling’s undulating flight is unmistakable: three rapid strokes followed by a glide.
The stationary starling bursts into song. It rattles like a shaken can of spray paint, then modulates through a wolf whistle, a screech, the woof of a bulldog, and a cardinal’s liquid phrase. But this composite song arrives through a blur of distortion, dust on the phonograph needle. Though the sources are recognizable, it couldn’t fool anyone. Down the block, the crank on a lawn mower won’t quite catch in the rain.
The starling, like its cousin the mynah bird, improvises a pastiche of motifs drawn from life. An adult starling may collect sixty or more songs from which to pick and choose. These snippets are altered, rearranged, and spliced into an explosive sequence. We can discern in them what absorbs the starling’s attention: predators, rivals, and anomalies. These echoes are not only expressive but also exploratory. To discover what a sound means, the mimic essays it on the air, gauging the effect of each stolen phrase on its fellow creatures.
Whatever its purposes, mimicry sealed the starling to us. Since Roman times, at least, starlings have been kept as pets. How could anyone room with such a raucous creature? Between bursts of song, their young often keep up endless, squishy calls like wet sneakers. But starlings can master human utterances, repeating words and phrases, sometimes suggesting a connected discourse just out of hearing.
According to his biographers, Mozart had a pet starling of which he was inordinately fond. He purchased the bird in 1784 and buried it with a funeral procession and elegy three years later. The pomp of the occasion was partly farcical, but Mozart’s affection for the bird was real, apparently sealed when it learned a melodic theme from his Piano Concerto in G major, K. 453. Vogel Star, as he called the bird, would whistle variations on the tune, altering a note and adjusting the rhythm very slightly. Das war schön, that was beautiful, he recorded in his notebook. Some scholars have detected the bird’s influence on Mozart’s Ein musikalischer Spass (A Musical Joke), K. 522, completed shortly after the starling’s death, which features an illogical patchwork of stock material, asymmetry, and haphazard polytonality. Mozart had a starling’s heart — absurd, bawdy, fierce, and tender. Mozart of the dirty joke, quick riposte, double-entendre, and whistled melody.
If the single starling is a wonder of melodic invention, a flock of them forms harmonic counterpoint. Melody against melody, their simultaneous lines of flight cross without crashing. A shoal of starlings banks in the air above the rusted roofs of an abandoned copper smelter. Until it was shut down early this century, it poured forth sludge, baghouse dust, refractory brick, and acids. The dense, particulate flock rushes through dereliction. Their sheer exuberance forms a complex pattern, thousands together, like the rose of metal filings around a magnet. Elsewhere murmurations reach a million birds, storms of birds, concentric “ring angels” vast enough to register on radar screens.
The cloud of birds descends, becoming a concentrated darkness in oak limbs. The starlings begin a dusk chorus, condensing all they have heard of relevance or curiosity. Just as dreamwork transforms the residues of desire, the birds’ song sifts the ambience of the day. It rises to a great cacophony against the last light before diminishing.
-What unexpected pleasure, voyeuristically observing starlings thru another’s eye, (and ears). I can’t wait to go out and find a flock of them to watch, and listen to; just being aware, how rare it is in my life.
Exquisite writing. Like Dorothy, I am heading for the starlings, wherever they may be found. And I will listen for their voices. Recently heard about birds in an area where logging is occuring and where these mynah-related birds imitate the sound of trees falling and chainsaws.
Great essay! I never appreciated their ability to mimic sounds before–now I’ll be sure to listen for them. I loved the story about Mozart.
Not many people know about this.
Here is something I wrote down couple years ago about a starling outside the bedroom window. It was so amazing I wanted to share it, but who would care?
“Really listening for the first time, I was amazed. In a nonstop medley of burbles, whistles, ratchets, and countless other sounds, I began to notice exact impersonations inserted as short, discrete segments in the overall flow of sound.
In the approximate order of frequency, I heard renditions of:
Fire Truck Siren
The first two in particular were repeated fairly often-the plaintive cry of the hawk from Western movies and the noisy but articulate squawk of the magpie. All were perfectly precise. If I recorded them, no one would know that the individual sounds in the list were anything but the real thing.
In between the sounds I recognized, I suspect some of the “filler” sounds were also impersonations, because they were so distinct. But I just don’t know enough to recognize them. Anyone know what I’m talking about? I wonder if this happens often and we don’t listen, or if I was lucky to be in a right place at a right time.”
You know what I’m talking about!
Your article really has piqued my curiosity.
Did Mozart actually call his pet Vogel Star ?- I mean, is that a name or a description ?- Those two words (taking into consideration the initial capital letters characteristic of German nouns) simply translate as “starling bird” (and it’s spelled Vogel Staar). They appear in the little Trauergedicht or versified eulogy which the disconsolate composer penned after his bird had expired, rung down the curtain and joined the Choir Invisible :
Hier ruht ein lieber Narr,
Ein Vogel Staar.
Noch in den besten Jahren
MuÃŸt er erfahren
Des Todes bittern Schmerz.
[My translation, may it please :]
Here lies a little clown,
My starling bird.
‘Tis in the flow’r of Art
That he must now depart
To taste Death’s bitter rue.
Five years ago in a commemorative percussion concerto entitled “Das war schÃ¶n!” (employing Mozart’s own compliment to his bird), the modern Norwegian composer Rolf Wallin paid musical tribute to the master and his pet. Wallin took it upon himself to refer to the creature as “a starling named Herr Stahr” (a seeming presumption which was then parrotted by The Juilliard Journal, Der General-Anzeiger Bonn, and Steve Smith’s music review of February 20, 2008, in The New York Times). Again, doesn’t this supposed name just mean “Mr Starling” in German ?
These flights of fancy will not do, I think. Attestation looks inadequate-to-nil for such an onomastic leap, and I don’t believe Maynard Solomon’s Mozart biography gives any name.
I have searched for an answer, and so I ask Orion readers : What did Mozart name his pet starling ?
Great Scott, have you news of the feathered mans name? It is of great importance to me. Hope you have some more info. Thanks.
Well, if by “feathered man” you mean Papageno in Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute”, then no ; this is about the pet starling the composer kept. There is still no report of whether the bird had a name, not even in Maynard Solomon’s biography, nor in the ground-breaking ornithological study by West and King.
Most references simply make a note of “Mozart’s pet starling” or use the German descriptive term Vogel Staar, which simply means “starling bird”.
Mozart must have given his pet a name, right ?