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Mozart's Starling
Meredith J. West
Andrew P. King


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was also the delighted owner of a pet starling. He recorded the purchase of the starling in an expense book, noting the date, price and a musical fragment the bird was whistling. The pleasure he expressed at hearing the starling's song--"Das war schon!" (that was beautiful)--is all the more understandable when one compares the beginning of the last movement of his Piano Concerto in G major, K.453, which was written about the same time. Somehow the bird had learned the theme from Mozart's concerto. It did however sing G sharp where Mozart had written G natural, giving its rendition a characteristically off-key sound.

On 27 May 1784, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart purchased a starling. Three years later, he buried it with much ceremony. Heavily veiled mourners marched in a procession, sang hymns, and listened to a graveside recitation of a poem Mozart had composed for the occasion (1). Mozart's performance has received mixed reviews. Although some see his gestures as those of a sincere animal lover, others have found it hard to believe that the object of Mozart's grief was a dead bird. Another event in the same week has been put forth as a more likely cause for Mozart's funereal gestures: the death of his father Leopold (2).

The scholars who have reported and interpreted this historical incident knew much about Mozart but little, if anything, about starlings. To put the incident into better perspective, we will provide here a profile of the vocal capacities of captive starlings. Mozart's skills as a musician and composer would have rendered him especially susceptible to the starling's vocal charms, and thus we will also propose that the funeral and the poem are not the end of the story. Mozart may have left another memorial to his starling, an offbeat requiem for rebels.

Mozart's starling was a European starling, Sturnus vulgaris. The species was later introduced to North America on an artistic note. The birds were imported from England in the 1890s in an effort to represent the avian cast of Shakespeare's plays in this country (3). Fewer than 200 birds were released in New York's Central Park. Population estimates in the 1980s hovered around 200,000,000 birds, a millionfold increase, making starlings one of the most successful road shows in history.

The vocal talents of starlings have been known since antiquity (4). The species possesses a rich repertoire of calls and songs composed of whistles, dicks, rattles, snarls, and screeches. In addition, starlings copy the sounds of other birds and animals, weaving these mimicked themes into long soliloquies that, in captive birds, can contain fragments of human speech. Pliny reported individual birds, mimicking Greek and Latin, that "practiced diligently and spoke new phrases every day, in still longer sentences." Shakespeare knew enough about their abilities to have Hotspur propose teaching a starling to say the name "Mortimer," an earl distrusted by Henry IV, to disturb the king's sleep (Henry IV, Part 1, act 1, scene 3). In the song cycle Die schone Mullerin, Schubert set to music a poem in which a starling is given a romantic mission: "I'd teach a starling how to speak and sing, / Till every word and note with truth should ring, / With all the skill my lips and tongue impart, / With all the warmth and passion of my heart" (5).

Despite this wealth of anecdotal information, few scientists have studied the vocal behavior of starlings under the conditions necessary to separate fact from fiction. The problem with starlings is that they vocalize too much, too often, and in too great numbers, sometimes in choruses numbering in the thousands (a flock of starlings is labeled a murmuration). Even the seemingly elementary step of creating an accurate catalogue of the vocal repertoires of wild starlings is an intimidating task because of the variety of their sounds. Other well-known avian mimics, such as the mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), have proved as challenging, leaving unanswered key questions about the development and functions of mimetic behavior.

Some of the problems involved in the study of nonmimetic songbirds arise with mimics as well. Researchers must be able to find and raise songbirds from a young age or ideally from the egg under conditions in which their exposure to social and acoustic stimulation can be controlled. The birds must be observed for many months or sometimes years to capture fully the processes of cultural evolution and transmission of vocal motifs from generation to generation. And for all species, researchers must acquire expertise in the acoustic analysis of sounds to overcome their inability to hear much of the fine detail in avian vocalizations.

Because of these difficulties, many "definitive" pieces of work have been based on small sample sizes, often fewer than ten individuals, sometimes fewer than five. Larger samples are possible only with avicultural favorites, such as canaries (Serinus canaria) or zebra finches (Poephila guttata). Even with these subjects, re search schedules must be accommodated to seasonal cycles. The kinds of vocalizations produced by a species can differ considerably throughout the year, with the most "interesting" sounds in the form of territorial or mating signals occurring for only a few months each year. In sum, songbirds are a handful.

Mimetic species add another layer of difficulty by including sounds made by other birds, other animals, and even machines. Thus, in addition to exploring how members of a mimetic species develop species-typical calls and songs---that is, vocalizations with many shared acoustic properties within a population---investigators routinely encounter individual idiosyncracies. Why does one starling mimic a goat and another a cat? Given the abundance of sounds in the world, what processes account for the selection of models?

Baylis (6) advocated studying just part of the mimic's repertoire as a first step, suggesting the example of mockingbirds frequently mimicking cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis). Although mockingbirds mimic many species, cardinals are a favorite. Why? What consequences accrue for mimic or model? By focusing on one model-mimic system, scientists might answer a number of questions surrounding the nature and function of mimicry. Further control of the model-mimic system can be gained by exposing birds to human speech, a vocal code with a more favorable "signal-to-noise" ratio. This heightens the probability that investigators can detect mimicry and makes it easier to identify the origin of mimicked sounds and the environmental conditions facilitating or inhibiting interspecific mimicry (7). Here, the use of human language is not comparable to efforts with apes or dolphins aimed at uncovering possible analogues to human language. Rather, the use of speech sounds is more properly compared to the use of a radioactive isotope to trace physiological pathways. Thus, when a captive starling utters, "Does Hammacher Schlemmer have a toll-free number?" it is easier to trace the phrase's origin and how often it has been said than to trace the history of the bird's production of "breep, beezus, breep, beeten, beesix."

Over the past decade, we have studied nine starlings, each hand-reared from a few days of age (8). We have also collected information on the behavior of five other starlings, raised under similar conditions by individuals unaware of our work and unaware of starlings' mimicking abilities when their relationship with the birds began (see Kuro) (9). Although many questions remain about the species's vocal capacities, the findings shed light on Mozart's response to his starling's death.

The 14 starlings experienced different social relationships with humans. Eight birds lived individually in what is called interactive contact with the humans who hand-reared them. Their cages were placed in busy parts of the home, and the birds had considerable freedom to associate with their caregivers in diverse ways: feeding from hands; perching on fingers, shoulders, or heads; exploring caregivers' possessions; and inserting themselves into activities such as meal preparation, piano lessons, baths, showers, and telephone conversations. The humans spontaneously talked to the birds, whistled to them, and gestured by kissing, snapping fingers, and waving good-bye.

Explicit procedures to teach human words using methods prescribed for other mimicking species were not used. Six of the eight caregivers did not know that such training would have an effect until the birds themselves demonstrated their mimicking ability, and two refrained because they were instructed by us to do so. The birds could obtain food and water (and avian companionship in five of eight cases) without interacting with humans.

Three other starlings lived under conditions of limited contact with humans. After 30 days of hand rearing by us, they were individually placed in new homes, along with a cowbird (Molothrus ater). They lived in cages, rarely flew free, and were passively exposed to humans. They heard speech but were not "spoken to" because they did not engage in the kinds of social interactions described for the first group. The final three starlings lived together in auditory contact with humans. They were housed in an aviary on a screened porch of the caregivers raising one of the freely interacting birds. As a result, their auditory environment was loosely yoked to that of the other bird.

The information gathered on the starling's mimicry differed by setting and caregiver. Extensive audio taping was carried out for the nine subjects studied under our supervision. For three of the remaining birds involved in interactive contact, we used repertoires available in published works, supplemented by personal inquiries. For the last two we obtained verbal reports from caregivers.

Go to: Mozart's Starling Page Two

The music you are hearing is from Mozart's "A Musical Joke" K.522 Second Movement: Menuetto
It is believed to be based on the song of his beloved pet starling.

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