They devour crops and cattle feed, and they nab other birds’ nesting sites. Still, starlings can actually show us how we can adjust our relationship to the natural world, says writer Lyanda Lynn Haupt.
.. Starlings are among the most despised birds in all of North America, and with good reason (TEDxRainier Talk: Encounter the everyday wilderness). They are a ubiquitous, nonnative, invasive species. There are so many that no one can count them — estimates run to about 200 million.
.. As deputy of the American Acclimatization Society of New York, Schieffelin, it is believed, latched onto the goal of bringing every bird mentioned in the works of Shakespeare to Central Park, and he zeroed in on the Bard’s single reference to a starling in Henry IV. In 1890, he purchased 80 of the birds, had them shipped to the US, and released them on a snowy March day in Central Park. Genetic research in sample populations across the continent leads ornithologists to believe that all of the hundreds of millions of starlings in North America are descendants of Schieffelin’s birds.
It took them just 80 years to populate the continent, and they’ve behaved atrociously in their New World. They feast on crops and lurk around farms and lots where they binge on feed in the troughs of cattle and swine. According to an estimate by Cornell University researchers, in the US starlings cause $800 million in agricultural damage every year.
.. In 1960, Eastern Airlines Flight 375 took off from Boston’s Logan Airport for Philadelphia and other points south. Seconds after takeoff, it collided with a flock of 20,000 starlings. Two of the four engines lost power, the plane plunged into the sea, and 62 people died. After the crash, officials tested seasoned pilots on flight simulators to see if any could have saved the plane in such a scenario. All failed. In other tests, live starlings were thrown into running engines. It was found that just three or four birds could cause a dangerous power drop.
.. Starlings are despised above all else by conservationists for their ability to outcompete native birds for food and a limited number of nest sites.
.. In 2015, US government agents killed over one million starlings — more than any other so-called nuisance species.
.. Yet these killings have made no dent in starling numbers, and they never will. There are simply too many starlings, and they are too good at reproducing and surviving.
.. while their populations have grown and spread exponentially, they have for the last thirty years or so been stable. Every species has a carrying capacity
.. at least some of their impact on native birdlife may turn out to be more perceived than real. Researchers at Berkeley conducted a years-long survey, published in 2003, that was designed to document the impact of starlings on indigenous species, and they were not able to determine quantifiable harm.
.. In 1939, a not-yet-famous Rachel Carson wrote an essay titled “How About Citizenship Papers for the Starling?” In it she argued that instead of seeing the bird as an invader, people should accept starlings as a regular species and give up talk of “invasive” and “nonnative.” This notion is echoed by some modern conservationists, who say there are many invasive species, like the starling, that are simply ineradicable. Instead of spending time and effort worrying about such species, we should accept them as part of the modern landscape and move on to issues we can actually do something about.
.. the most significant point to remember is that starlings thrive in areas that are disturbed by human presence, including dense urban environments — places where more sensitive species cannot survive in the long term. For now, it seems some birds go elsewhere when their nests are usurped.
.. We need to design human landscapes that are hospitable to more species of native birds. This means less grass and more trees.
.. even a few trees in urban neighborhoods will increase the diversity of bird species, and that people who live near trees are healthier — mentally and physically — than those who don’t.
So what kind of murmur began that spring day in Vienna when a twenty-eight-year-old Mozart, jaunty in his garnet coat and gold-rimmed cap, strolled into a shop to whistle at a starling in a cage? That bird must have zeroed in on Mozart’s mouth, drinking-in the whistled seventeen-note opening phrase from his recent piano concerto:
.. No matter how the starling learned the song, on May 27, 1784, it spat that tune right back at the tunesmith—but not without taking some liberties first.
.. composers obsessive over the rhetoric of sonata form: first establishing a theme, then creating tension through a new theme and key, then stretching it into a dizzying search for resolution, and finally finding the resolve in a rollicking coda. The formal understanding of this four-part structure permeated classical symphony, sonata, and concerto. By 1784, sonata form had imprinted itself on the listening culture enough to feel like instinct
.. As the old German saying goes, the music of Bach gave us God’s word, Beethoven gave us God’s fire, but Mozart gave God’s laughter to the world. He found the accidents in song that reminded music to glorify the playful, the mischievous
.. all courting males organize their love songs in a four-part sequence of Whistle, Warble, Click, and Screech.
Each bird begins with a set of repeated whistles—a kind of reedy introduction. Next, as the feathers at his throat seethe and puff, he weaves a run of maddening musical snippets—as few as ten or as many as thirty-five—curated into descending tones. Some of these snippets are filched from nearby species (or lawn equipment, or cellular phones). It’s here, in this second movement, that the “Twin-kle Twin-kle” meets the chackerchackerchacker, the smoke alarm, and the Bee Gees. Without stopping, he then slams into the third section, that of the percussive click solo. Syncopated and note-less rattles shoot from his beak at presto speed, as many as fifteen clicks per second. And then he ends with a fortissimo finale of loud, exclamatory shrieks, enough to wake the neighbors.
.. After a millennium of searching, we cannot figure out where in the brain this starling song is bred. It’s possible the whole process is the result of a mental function humans simply don’t possess. Or most of us don’t, anyway.
.. computer studies of his “autograph scores” that show revision after revision scribbled onto the pages in multiple inks. We now know Mozart drafted and woodshedded for his entire career. He didn’t simply spit music out; musical ideas incubated inside him for decades.
.. Mozart’s best trick was an improvisational game not unlike an eighteenth-century rap battle. A court composer or some member of the cognoscenti would play a sparse bass line on the keys, over which Mozart would improvise a melody—sometimes complete with harmony or counterpoint. Then his much older opponent would answer back with a different melody, which Mozart would rework, and back and forth again and again until the challenger eventually crapped out. Pipsqueak Mozart never did, and his royal audiences delighted in these on-the-spot reworkings of their musical rules. That’s how Mozart grew up: chasing melodies as they flew by him, hunting for the ways each note might pivot into something new.
.. the bird lived with him for thirty-six of the most vibrant months of Mozart’s career.
.. Leopold Mozart complained in a letter that his son’s home buzzed at all hours with rabble-rousing factions: students, rehearsal groups, goofy late-night jam sessions. Their noise was nonstop and deafening. Mozart reportedly hated being alone, even when he worked.
.. As Mozart hammered them shiny, the bird sent the tunes back upside-down, at half-speed and double-time, and piped one inconsequential middle note for five straight seconds. It’s not difficult to imagine Mozart valuing this kind of collaboration, as he spent so much of this period reaching out to various “songbirds.”
.. Starlings are more responsive to human eye contact than most mammalian pets; they know when they’re being watched and aren’t afraid to hold a gaze. It’s one of the primary traits—along with a high touch response—that allows deep bonding between starlings and humans, as we love eye contact, too. One ornithologist called the starling “the poor man’s dog” for its ability to connect and demonstrate loyalty.
.. Mozart took the bird with them. We know this because he made such a fuss over the starling when it died a few months later.
On that day in early June, the new Mozart home welcomed a dozen mourners in elaborate, costumey garb—giant plumes and feather fans, or maybe black masks with beaks. The guests were first treated to a dirge (arranged by Mozart) for chamber ensemble, and then the maestro recited a short elegy he’d written to the bird, his Vogel Staar.
.. Who knows why Mozart planned this cuckoo funeral. We have no evidence that he ever mourned this way again. The verse and the dirge and the funeral party could have been a mock solemnity—Mozart rarely passed up the chance for a weird party or a good gag. On the other hand, he could have been somewhat serious, as he was a known animal lover. But why publicly mourn a pet starling and not his own father, who died without ceremony in Salzburg just a week before?