How Mozart Changed My Mind About America’s Most Hated Bird
Lyanda Lynn Haupt on the Starling
This would have taken me half as long to write if it were not for one fact: most of it was composed with a starling perched on my shoulder. Or at least in the vicinity of my shoulder. Sometimes she was standing on top of my head. Sometimes she was nudging the tips of my fingers as they attempted to tap the computer keys. Sometimes she was defoliating the Post‑it notes from books where I had carefully placed them to mark passages essential to the chapter I was working on—she would stand there in a cloud of tiny pink and yellow papers with an expression on her intelligent face that I could only read as pleased. She pooped on my screen. She pooped in my hair. Sometimes she would watch, with me, the chickadees that came to my window feeder to nibble the sunflower seeds I left for them. Sometimes she would look me in the eye and say, Hi, honey! Clear as day. “Hi, Carmen,” I would whisper back to her. Sometimes, tired of all these things and seemingly unable to come up with a new way to entertain herself or pester me, she would stand close to my neck, tunnel beneath my hair, and nestle down, covering her warm little feet with her soft breast feathers, so close to my ear that I could hear her heartbeat. She would close her eyes and fall into a light bird sleep.
It sounds like a sweet scene, but there is a conflict at its center. I am a nature writer, a birdwatcher, and a committed wildlife advocate, so the fact that I have lovingly raised a European starling in my living room is something of a confession. In conservation circles, starlings are easily the most despised birds in all of North America, and with good reason. They are a ubiquitous, nonnative, invasive species that feasts insatiably upon agricultural crops, invades sensitive habitats, outcompetes native birds for food and nest sites, and creates way too much poop. Millions of starlings have spread across the continent since they were introduced from England into New York’s Central Park 130 years ago.
An adult starling is about eight and a half inches from tip to tail, a fair bit larger than a sparrow but still smaller than a robin, with iridescent black feathers and a long, sharp, pointed bill. Just over 150 years before the first starlings appeared in Central Park, the Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus had placed the species within his emerging avian taxonomy and christened it with the Latinized name we still use: Sturnus vulgaris. Sturnus for “star,” referring to the shape of the bird in flight, with its pointed wings, bill, and tail; and vulgaris, not for “vulgar,” as starling detractors like to assume, but for “common.”* When Linnaeus named the bird, it was simply part of the European landscape and had not spread across the waters. There was no controversy surrounding the species; it was just a pretty bird. Starlings are now one of the most pervasive birds in North America, and there are so many that no one can count them; estimates run to about two hundred million. Ecologically, their presence here lies on a scale somewhere between highly unfortunate and utterly disastrous.
In The Birdist’s Rules of Birding, a National Audubon Society blog by environmental journalist Nicholas Lund, one of the primary rules is actually “It’s Okay to Hate Starlings.” Sometimes beginning birders in the first flush of bird-love believe that it is a requirement of their newfound vocation to be enamored of all feathered creatures. But as we learn more, writes Lund, our relationships with various species become more nuanced. Some species are universally loved; who wouldn’t feel happy in the presence of a cheerful black-capped chickadee? But once we become more informed about starlings, we begin to feel an inner dissonance. Lund tells birders who are first experiencing such confusion not to feel guilty: “It’s okay to hate certain species . . . healthy, even. I suggest you start with European Starlings.” In addition to the issues with starlings I’ve listed, Lund adds: “They’re loud and annoying, and they’re everywhere.”
It’s true; among those who know a little about North American birds, starlings are not just disliked, they’re outright hated. In The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human, birder and journalist Noah Strycker (famous for seeing more species of birds on earth in one year than anyone, ever) writes, “If you Google ‘America’s most hated bird,’ all of the top results refer to starlings. Such universal agreement is rare in matters of opinion, but on this everyone seems to concur: Starlings are rats with wings.” Birders typically keep lists of the species they see on a field trip, but many don’t even include the invasive starling on their tallies. Ornithological writer and blogger Chris Petrak does list them, not because he is glad to spot them but because he is “interested in those rare occasions when I can go almost an entire day without seeing a starling, and those even rarer days when I don’t see one at all.” The joy of a starling-less list. He goes on to back up Strycker: “Bird lover or not, the starling is not a loved bird. In fact, it is without a doubt the most hated bird in America.”
Common, invasive, aggressive, reviled. Starlings don’t just lie beneath our notice, the sentiment runs, they are actually undeserving of our notice. By rights, I know I should agree with the many guests in my home who learn that a starling lives here and pronounce, “Oh, I am a bird-lover, so I hate starlings.” I do detest the presence of the species in North America. But this bird on my shoulder? Mischievous, clever, disorderly, pestering, sparkling, sleepy? Yes, I confess, I couldn’t be more fond of her.
People always ask how I get the ideas for my books; I think all authors hear this question. And, at least for me, there is only one answer: You can’t think up an idea. Instead, an idea flies into your brain—unbidden, careening, and wild, like a bird out of the ether. And though there is a measure of chance, luck, and grace involved, for the most part ideas don’t rise from actual ether; instead, they spring from the metaphoric opposite—from the rich soil that has been prepared, with and without our knowledge, by the whole of our lives: what we do, what we know, what we see, what we dream, what we fear, what we love.
For much of my life I have studied birds. I have watched them, sketched them, scribbled notes about their habits and habitats. I have spent hundreds of hours immersed in ornithological texts and journals. I worked for a time as a raptor rehabilitator, and once I had done that, it seemed that all the injured birds within a 50-mile radius had a way of finding me. People discovered wounded birds in their backyards and brought them to me in small boxes. A flopping, broken-legged gull turned up on my doorstep. One day while I was out for a walk, a diseased robin fell from a tree and landed on the sidewalk literally at my feet. And though I left rehab behind long ago, I have too often found myself raising orphaned chicks of various species, or binding the wings of injured birds, or making sick birds comfortable as they pass into the next world. So it makes sense that my thoughts, my life, and my work have been inspired by birds. But not by starlings. Because my subjects included everyday nature and urban wildlife, I had written about starlings out of necessity, but not out of true inspiration. Starlings, I felt, deserved no such esteem.
And as a writer, of course, I live by inspiration. I watch it come and go; when it’s missing, I pray for its reappearance. I light a candle and put it in my window hoping that this little ritual might help inspiration find its way back to me, like a lover lost in a snowstorm. The word itself is beautiful. Inspire is from the Latin meaning “to be breathed upon; to be breathed into.” Just as I ponder the migrations of birds, I ponder the migrations of inspiration’s light breeze. If it’s not with me, where is it? Where has it been? Who has it breathed upon while it was away, and when, and how? Over and over again, I have come to terms with the sad truth that inspiration never visits at my convenience, nor in accordance with my sense of timing, nor at the behest of my will. Most of all, the inspiration-wind has no interest whatsoever in what I think I want to write about.
One day a couple of years ago I was gazing out of my study window and noticed a plague of starlings on the grassy parking strip in front of the house.** I was not looking for an idea that day—I had an engaging project on my desk and was just pondering the next sentence, not the next book. I pounded on the window to scare the starlings away, as I often do when they gather in numbers. The other little neighborhood birds find groups of starlings menacing—when starlings descend, the chickadees in my hawthorn tree rush away, as do the bushtits, and even the larger robins. Only the bold crows remain. So I pounded. The starlings flapped and rose halfheartedly, then landed again and returned to their grubbing for worms in the parking-strip grass. I rapped the window harder, and again they lifted. But this time, they turned toward the light and I was dazzled by the glistening iridescence of their breasts. So shimmery, ink black and scattered with pearlescent spots, like snow in sun. Hated birds, lovely birds. In this moment of conflicted beauty, a story I’d heard many times leapt to mind.
Mozart kept a pet starling. I can’t even remember where I read that in my ornithological studies—it is one of those arcane little details recorded here and there, usually without substantiation. I repeated it myself in my first book, Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds. Later, I was reading Jim Lynch’s lovely novel Border Songs and discovered that one of his characters mentioned it. When I asked Lynch where he’d heard about Mozart’s starling, he told me, “I read it in your book.” Oh, dear! I began to worry that I’d been spreading an apocryphal story, but further research assured me that the tale was true. Mozart discovered the starling in a Vienna pet shop, where the bird had somehow learned to sing the motif from his newest piano concerto. Enchanted, he bought the bird for a few kreuzer and kept it for three years before it died. Just how the starling learned Mozart’s motif is a wonderful musico-ornithological mystery. But there is one thing we know for certain: Mozart loved his starling.
Recent examination of his work during and after the period he lived with the bird shows that the starling influenced his music and, I believe, at least one of the opera world’s favorite characters. The starling was in turn his companion, distraction, consolation, and muse. When his father, Leopold, died, Wolfgang did not travel to Salzburg for the services. When his starling died, two months later, Mozart hosted a formal funeral in his garden and composed a whimsical elegy that proclaimed his affinity with the starling’s friendly mischievousness and his sorrow over the bird’s loss. Mozart is only one of many composers and artists throughout the centuries who’ve had birds as pets. Mozart kept canaries, too, at different times in his life. But the fact that Mozart lived with, and loved, a starling is extraordinary. One of the world’s greatest composers chose, as a household companion, what is now one of the world’s most hated birds. I have spoken with classical music lovers who are offended at the very notion that Mozart might have been inspired by this invasive species, and birdwatchers are just as indignant. What good could be associated with a starling? Along with our understanding that starlings are common and unwelcome arises an assumption that we humans tend to attach to all things common and unwelcome: that they are also dirty, ugly, disease-ridden, and probably dumb—certainly not proper consorts for genius.
While I was looking out that day at the pearly-snow-breasted starlings, while I was thinking of their despisedness and their loveliness and Mozart in one swirl, I noticed the music pouring from my iPhone Pandora station. It was Mozart’s Prague Symphony. Other than being composed by Mozart, this symphony has little to do with the tale of his pet bird (it was written while they lived together, though I didn’t know this at the time). But the synchronicity was enough for me. The hair on the back of my neck prickled as I felt a new obsession take root in my psyche. I could not stop wondering over the tangled story of Mozart and his starling and felt that I was being pulled through an unseen gateway as I began to follow the tale’s trail, uncovering all that I could from my 250-year remove.
What did Mozart learn from his bird? The juxtaposition of the hated and sublime is fascinating enough. But how did they interact? What was the source of their affinity? And how did the starling come to know Mozart’s tune? I dove into research, poring over the academic literature. I took to the streets, making detailed notes on the starlings in my neighborhood. But gaps in my understanding of starling behavior remained and niggled, and within a few weeks I reluctantly realized that to truly understand what it meant for Mozart to live with a starling, I would, like the maestro, have to live with a starling of my own.
I’d raised several starlings while working as a raptor rehabilitator for the Vermont Institute of Natural Science many years ago. Starlings aren’t raptors, of course, but people brought us all kinds of birds. It was the official policy of the rehab facility to euthanize any starlings that came through the door rather than lavish scarce resources on them and then release them into the wild to wreak their ecological havoc. Most often the starlings that came to us were babies, orphaned or cat-caught; the people who brought them had no idea about the ecological conflict and usually didn’t even know what kind of bird they had. They were just filled with compassion for another creature that needed care and had gone out of their way to act on their feelings as best they could. One little boy, about eight years old, carefully held out a baby starling cradled in a beautiful nest he’d made of grass and tissue. “Can you help him?” he asked with wide, expectant eyes as his mother stood watching behind him. What was I supposed to say? Sure, honey. Give me the bird — I’ll wring his scruffy neck for you. It seemed to me that the lessons to be gleaned in terms of respect for life and compassion for other creatures outweighed any slight ecological impact the release of a few individual starlings might have. So I became a renegade rehabber and made a deal with the folks who brought starlings in: I’d tend the chicks on my own time while they were in the precarious nestling phase, then give them back to their young rescuers for final raising and release.
It was fun to have juvenile starlings around the house; they were smart, busy, social, sweet, and made wonderful companions. But that was when I lived in a group house with a bunch of other hippie graduate-student ornithologists; having wild birds roaming around and a little bird poop here and there seemed perfectly normal. I brought all manner of birds home, from hummingbirds to hawks, and even great horned owls, which my housemates made me keep in the laundry room because they smelled of their last meal (skunk). And I’d always said good-bye to these starlings once they were minimally self-sufficient, not after they’d grown into aggressive, adult birds. What would it be like, I thought now, to raise a starling for months, maybe years, in my grown‑up household where I had decent furniture, expensive musical instruments, work to accomplish, and guests who would think I was batshit crazy?
It turns out that one little bird was capable of turning my household, and my brain, completely upside down. I thought I was bringing a wild starling into my home as a form of research for this book, but this bird had ideas of her own. Instead of settling dutifully into her role as the subject of my grandiose social-scientific-musical experiment, Carmen turned the tables. She became the teacher, the guide, and I became an unwitting student—or, more accurately, a pilgrim, a wondering journeyer who had no idea what was to come. Following Mozart’s starling, and mine, I was led on a crooked, beautiful, and unexpected path that wound through Vienna and Salzburg, the symphony, the opera, ornithological labs, the depths of music theory, and the field of linguistics. It led me to outer space. It led me deep into the spirit of the natural world and our constant wild animal companions. It led me to the understanding that there is more possibility in our relationships with animals—with all the creatures of the earth, not just the traditionally beautiful, or endangered, or loved—than I had ever imagined. And in this potential for relationship there lies our deepest source of creativity, of sustenance, of intelligence, and of inspiration.
* Some suggest that the star part of the name refers to the little white spots that shimmer on the tips of the bird’s black feathers during the nonbreeding season. It is impossible to know the genesis of the name for certain.
** There are exaltations of larks and murders of crows. A flock of flying starlings is called, beautifully, a murmuration, but there is no official name for a terrestrial flock, as far as I know. Plague seems appropriate.
From Mozart’s Starling. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company. Copyright © 2017 by Lyanda Lynn Haupt.