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How Do You Bond With Mozart? Adopt A Starling

Carmen, the pet starling of author Lyanda Lynn Haupt, prepares to dine on applesauce.
Tom Wurtwangler
Courtesy of the author
Carmen, the pet starling of author Lyanda Lynn Haupt, prepares to dine on applesauce.

When beginning a new writing project, naturalist and author Lyanda Lynn Haupt takes her research seriously. For her new book, Mozart's Starling, Haupt dutifully traveled to Austria, to see Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's birthplace and the famed composer's grave. But then she took one big step further.

Because her book is inspired by the little-known fact that Mozart kept a pet starling, Haupt decided to adopt one of her own. She rescued a 5-day-old nestling, named it Carmen and embarked on an adventure — the likes of which she never could have imagined.

Excerpts of our conversation below have been edited for clarity and concision.

Tom Huizenga: The book is called Mozart's Starling. I think that most people, even classical music fans, probably don't know that Mozart had a pet starling.

Lyanda Lynn Haupt: If it gets in any of the Mozart biographies at all, it's usually as a footnote. But he did have a starling. He acquired the bird in 1784, when he had just completed his Piano Concerto No. 17 in G.

We have in his notebook, recorded in his hand, the date that he finished it in April of 1784. We know the first performance was scheduled for June. So it wasn't out in the world yet. And we have a little notebook where, for just a short while, Mozart kept a record of his purchases. So we know he paid a few kreuzers for a starling in that notebook. And he called the bird Vogelstar, the German name for the species, which is the same species we have in North America.

The other really interesting thing in the notebook he copied down was the motif from the Allegretto [movement] of that Concerto No. 17. He copied it the way he wrote it, and then he copied it down the way the starling that he met in the shop sang it. It was very similar. And we have another piece of ephemera, an elegy that he wrote when the starling passed away three years later.

So it seems like the jury is out on whether Mozart happened to come into the shop and the bird was singing the theme from his concerto, that had not been heard in public yet, or some people are wondering whether Mozart purchased the bird and then taught it to sing that theme.

Right. Some have suggested that Mozart heard the bird sing and was inspired by it to create this music, but the dates we have just make that an impossible theory since we know that he had completed the concerto before he met the starling. That's the mystery. And I have a couple of ideas that I explore in the book.

Now, of course, the other starling in this book is your own starling named Carmen, which you rescued as just a little nestling because her home was about to be destroyed.

I want to make it really clear that almost every bird in North America is legally protected. So it is illegal to disturb or touch the nest, eggs, nestlings and, of course, adults of any species of bird in North America. There are a couple of exceptions. One of them is the starling because it's a non-native, invasive species.

But I did learn that a nest was going to be removed from a park near my home. When I mentioned this to the park official he said, "You know, we don't really care. They're starlings." I thought, "All right, I'm going to get me one of those birds for research." It was five days old by my estimation. I really saw it as the missing piece, after studying wild starlings and visiting Mozart's home where he lived with the startling in Vienna. The missing piece was: What's it really like to live with a starling?

Carmen, the pet starling, on the day author Lyanda Lynn Haupt rescued her.
Tom Furtwangler / Courtesy of the author
Courtesy of the author
Carmen, the pet starling, on the day author Lyanda Lynn Haupt rescued her.

So I raised the bird. When she was little she sat on my writing desk every day and became not just research but a huge part of this story, and a huge part in leading me to understand what I ought to look for in terms of thinking about Mozart with a startling in his house.

In the book you note that in 2015 the U.S. government killed over a million starlings. The USDA poisons them with something called Starlicide. How did starlings get to be so despised here in the U.S.?

They are non-native, invasive species here. They were not introduced until the 1890s when they were introduced into Central Park — just 20 birds. And 200 million birds have now grown out of that tiny population.

They're aggressive, they're adaptive and they're super-smart and clever. So they're able to adapt through their plasticity of behavior. They are cavity nesters, which means that they out-compete our native birds — birds that birdwatchers love: chickadees, bluebirds, some woodpeckers. Then they cause a ton of agricultural damage — $800 million a year in agricultural damage by pooping on, but mostly eating, crops. They're a complete pest.

In my opinion, there's at least one cool thing starlings do, and that is murmurations. I think a lot of people have seen a murmuration but don't really know what the word is.

In the case of starlings, the flocks are called murmurations. And what's special about them is that they're so big that they can't all fly in one direction at one time without running into each other — this is just based in physics — so they swirl. And even though they swirl in these huge mesmerizing groups, they never run into each other. They can have hundreds of birds, thousands or even a million birds. If you watch them, they're turning when the flock is turning at a different time. But they have to work really well together because if one bird turns the wrong direction they run into each other and their wings would break and would they die. But that never happens. It's still, in part, a mystery.

So it must be a little strange for you to have a starling as a pet because it's the bird that most people love to hate. It's something like having a pet cockroach.

I'm a conservationist. I'm a bird watcher. I'm a nature writer. I'm supposed to hate starlings the most. And as a species I do. But taking this bird into my house, I've realized the complexity that we have to hold in our minds for such things.

Carmen takes a bath in a bowl.
Tom Furtwangler / Courtesy of the author
Courtesy of the author
Carmen takes a bath in a bowl.

Most people think that because they're reviled and a pest species that they're also ugly and dumb. But having this bird in my house, I have to say they are beautiful. They are sort of an oil-slick, iridescent purple and green, and their wing tips are trimmed with this pearlescent white that wears off during the breeding season.

Carmen is so smart, so mischievous, and the word I have to use is "friendly." She just wants to be with us. She's interested in what we're doing all the time. If I'm working, she's on my hand while I'm typing on the computer or maybe jumping around the keys herself, just into everything that we are.

I think that most people would be surprised to learn that starlings can talk and mimic.

Almost everyone that I've spoken to, both in the general public and even many ornithology people, don't know that they're such good mimics. Carmen has a large vocabulary. From a scientific standpoint, the most interesting thing is that although she does mimic just randomly, she also anticipates things that are about to happen in our household. For example, I wake up in the morning, I come down the stairs and she looks at me and says, "Hi Carmen," which is the first thing I would say to her. And then the cat comes downstairs and she says "Meow." And then I go to make the coffee, and before I grind the beans she goes, "Rrrrr." She's sitting there in full awareness. And it's not just her, it's all of the starlings out there.

Listen to Carmen talk ("Hi, honey!")

That is amazing. We know many animals have sophisticated ways of communication, like the songs of the whales, for instance. But how much do we know about how animals actually speak with humans? I mean, are we getting any closer to the Doctor Dolittle idea of actually "talking to the animals?"

A lot of people are doing this kind of research with animals. One thing that's particularly interesting about starlings is that we're learning they are able to recognize fairly advanced human syntax, which was once thought by well-known linguists, including Noam Chomsky, to be only the purview of humans and the human language.

In your book you make the case that Mozart and his starling were kindred spirits.

What I didn't understand was that Mozart himself was a great mimic. Your readers who are into classical music history will know that he could imitate any musical style. But he also liked to mimic people for fun, you know; at parties, he would mimic the emperor. So Mozart himself was very mischievous, very clever, with kind of an eccentric personality. And so we also see in the elegy he wrote for his pet that he had a deep understanding of the starling's personality, its friendliness, its foolishness.

You make a connection between Mozart's starling and another piece of music — something very different from that lovely concerto.

Mozart's Musical Joke was completed very shortly after his starling died in 1787. And I'm not the first to make the connection between this starling and this piece of music. That was Meredith West in a 1990 piece for American Scientist magazine [co-written with Andrew King]. She noticed that musicians hated this piece because it made them sound really bad — a lot of disharmony, fractured phrases, very odd key changes. Finally, she noticed that if you overlaid some of the most disconcerting parts over the song of a starling, there are a lot of similarities. You find the same kind of fractured phrases and general playfulness.

It seems to me that Mozart very much knew what he was doing and it takes a man of great talent to be able to create this kind of controlled "losing of control."

I understand that your own starling, Carmen, seems to have her own distinct tastes in music.

I had this great fantasy that I would teach Carmen the motif that Mozart's starling learned — be on TV and it would be great. But she had no interest in learning it at all — just totally ignored it. She seems to like the Musical Joke, so maybe there really is something about the connection with starlings. But otherwise she loves listening to Bach. She sings along. And she loves bluegrass.

How has living with this starling changed you?

Well, it's changed the way that I walk in the world. It's given me more awareness. [Ralph Waldo] Emerson said, "We lie in the lap of an immense intelligence." And seeing how tuned in Carmen is to us makes me realize what I don't know about how the rest of life — from the birds to all of the other animals to even the trees. The immenseness of that intelligence is what's affecting me the most.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.