Mozart’s Starling

I had a complicated reaction to this book—enjoyed and hated it, learned things from it and then muttered about the frequent spurts of terrible writing. Haupt undertakes a project to raise a starling of her own, stolen from a nest in a local Seattle park right before a sweep to kill the starling population. This, to help her understand what it was like for Mozart to have a starling as a pet. The book weaves details of her own starling (named Carmen) alongside fantasies of Mozart’s starling, with underpinnings of actual facts about his life.

In April of 1784, Mozart completed his Piano Concerto No. 17 in G. He was 29 years old and this was his 453rd finished composition. In May, he purchased a starling from a pet shop after hearing the bird sing the theme from the allegretto in the new concerto which had never been performed in public, only the bird made a minor rhythmic change and raised the last two Gs to G-sharps. We know this from the detail in his notebook that recorded the purchase of the bird with a notation of his version of the motif and then the bird’s version. Theories: Mozart had previously visited the shop and whistled the motif a few times, enough for the bird to catch it. Or, there was a small performance of the concerto which may have had people whistling that motif in the streets afterwards. Or, as Mozart was composing a few streets away, the snippet of music made it out to another starling’s ear who passed it on.

Interesting bird bits:

  • Another confirmation of the genetic overlap between birds and humans that I noted in The Nature Fix review: 50 overlapping genes in humans and birds that correlate with vocal learning, meaning we’re more similar to birds than primates in this respect.
  • Her description of Carmen’s sunbath was interesting: “starlings enter a torpor-like state in the sun and spread themselves out so that as much light as possible can reach their epidermis. The many health benefits are believed to include vitamin D absorption, discouraging of parasites, release of oils that protect the skin, and possibly even a mental-health advantage—something akin to the restorative calm we humans feel when we lie on the beach or meditate.”
  • Carmen learned to mimic basic household sounds like the beep of a microwave and the whoosh of a wine bottle being stoppered up for the night. Interestingly, she made the sounds in response to appropriate stimuli, like making the microwave beeps just after she heard the microwave door open, or the whoosh sound after she heard the clink of a bottle.