A Seattle author writes about the bird that inspired Mozart — and her own experience living with a rescued starling.
By Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Little, Brown and Company, 277 pages, $27.
The story goes that one day Mozart was walking along a street in Vienna and heard, from a pet shop, a bird singing a phrase from his new piano concerto. How this could be, since the work hadn’t yet been performed anywhere, stumped him. But charmed, he bought the little singer, who turned out to be a European starling, a species along with mynas, corvids, parrots and some others that can learn to talk as well as mimic all sorts of sounds.
Seattle naturalist Lyanda Lynn Haupt, author of “Crow Planet” and other books mainly focusing on birds, had herself mentioned this event in her first book. But because the story intrigued her and she was open to ideas for a new topic to write about, living with a starling seemed the best way to share Mozart’s experience. The opportunity to snag a chick from a nearby city park before the nests and babies were swept from under the restroom roofs one spring day proved irresistible.
It was “part rescue, part theft,” she confesses. With her husband’s help, they scooped up the “tiniest, ugliest, most unpromising little creature the earth has ever brought forth.” Haupt had worked as a bird rehabber so knew this 5- or 6-day-old chick would need feeding every 20 minutes plus a nest of 85 degrees until its feathers grew in.
Lyanda Lynn Haupt
The author of “Mozart’s Starling” will read and discuss her new book at 7:30 p.m. April 7 at Town Hall; $5 (townhallseattle.org or 206-652-4255)
Ironically, all this care was to be lavished on one of America’s most hated birds. Nonnative and invasive, the species was brought here in 1890 by Eugene Schieffelin, a pharmacist who harbored the goofy ambition of importing every bird mentioned in Shakespeare to New York’s Central Park.
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The rest, as the saying goes, is history: Starlings spread across the entire continent in only 80 years and now number roughly 200 million. “Robust, aggressive, omnivorous,” curious, intelligent and mature at nine months, they raise at least two broods of four to six chicks yearly. They outcompete many native birds with disastrous ecological effects.
Haupt, nevertheless, falls in love with her nestling and, guessing it’s female, names her Carmen (more appropriate for a bird belonging to Bizet, but oh, well). Carmen lives in a lined cottage-cheese tub until she’s big enough for her own aviary. Stories of her upbringing interspersed with details about Mozart, his family and career are both delightful and interesting.
For example, Carmen imitates the coffee grinder’s whirr and microwave’s beep, says “C’mere” and “Hi, honey,” and also speaks to the family cat. That a bird uses English with people but says “Meow” to the cat raises questions about consciousness and communication. And sometimes, she comes when called, suggesting cause and effect are at work. But although Carmen likes almost all music, Mozart doesn’t ring her chimes except for a bizarre piece called “A Musical Joke,” making her toss her head and sing.
Haupt travels to Austria to visit Mozart’s home and the cemetery where he’s thought to have been buried, speculates on how children and birds learn to speak, considers the role of birdsong in nature and believes some of Mozart’s compositions include passages inspired by his starling, with whom he surely “shared vocal play.” From life with Carmen, Haupt imagines them both to have been playful, disobedient chatterboxes.