Review: Mozart’s Starling

In 1784, Mozart heard a starling in a shop sing a variation on the theme from his Piano Concerto No. 17. Enchanted, he took it home. Just over a century later, New York pharmacist Eugene Schieffelin, a member of the American Acclimatization Society, imported 80 starlings from England – apparently as part of an attempt to introduce to the Americas every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays – and released them in Central Park. Another century on and starling numbers have exploded in North America – there are perhaps 150 million.

Thanks to starlings being an introduced species that may out-compete native birds for nest cavities, they are probably the most hated bird species in North America today. But anybody who has ever looked at a starling close up, especially when its plumage catches the sun, will have noticed that they’re quite beautiful birds with fascinating behaviours. When naturalist and author Lyanda Lynn Haupt noticed these qualities in a flock of starlings feeding in her garden, she recalled the strange little story about Mozart and, to paraphrase her description of how book projects come about, “an idea flew into her brain.”

Recounting in parallel the twin tales of Mozart’s relationship with his bird and the author’s own experience of raising a nestling starling, Mozart’s Starling is a thoughtful reflection on the relationships between humans and our wild neighbours. It is also an insightful commentary on how that relationship is complicated by perceptions of invasive species; Haupt points out the contradiction between how we judge individuals versus a whole species: “Do I want starlings gone? Erased from the face of North America? Yes, unequivocally. … And do I love them? Their bright minds, their sparkling beauty, their unique consciousness, their wild starling voices? Their feathers, brown from one angle, shining from another? Yes, yes, I do.”

For a relatively short book this has an impressive blend of genres, moving through popular science, nature writing, philosophy, a smattering of travel (as the author explores Mozart sites in Vienna and Salzburg) and an exploration of the creative process. The real star of the narrative, though, is the nestling Haupt sneakily rescued and raised – keeping a starling is illegal in Washington State, where she lives. Named Carmen, the bird becomes an essential part of the household. The many little observations about her behaviour scattered through the book are quite charming but not merely included for the sake of whimsy, instead providing a fascinating glimpse into the often surprising world of wild bird behaviour.

Seen close up in this way, the intelligence of birds can be misinterpreted as making them seem more human, but what the two starlings portrayed here teach us is not to see birds as pseudo-people but as more fully birds, while seeing in the possibility of relationship with them a way of becoming more fully human ourselves. Continuing a common theme that runs throughout Haupt’s work, Mozart’s Starling shows that the key to a life enriched by nature is most often found in the commonplace, often overlooked wildlife right on our doorstep. “Mozart found inspiration in the presence of a common bird. For us, too, the song of the world so often rises in places we had not thought to look.”

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A tree full of starlings at Otmoor RSPB reserve in Oxfordshire

Spirals in Time

Every other day or so of late I’ve skipped the bus queues and hopped on a ‘Ready Bike’ to get down the hill to Reading station. The heavy-framed, robust machines pick up speed easily on the downhill, so at least part of the ride is quite fun. Unfortunately, traversing the urban landscape and dicing with rush-hour traffic is not so pleasant. Neither is the Reading townscape a peaceful or inspiring place to cycle. Even the River Kennet comes as a disappointment, surrounded by concrete walls as it slinks shamefaced through town, as though cowed by its encounter with the Oracle shopping centre. But is it fair to judge a river by its surroundings? Under the water, the Kennet lives. It’s far from perfect, I’m sure, but the freshwater environment up and down Britain is cleaner than it has been for a good few decades. One proof of that is also the reason I must remember not to cycle through Reading town centre with my mouth open at this time of year: mayflies.

As individual animals they’re quite beautiful, especially in the manner of their flight. Early in the month the first to emerge twirl slowly up from the water’s surface, inviting any number of doubtless clichéd comparisons with helicopters or ballet dancers. For me the delicate backlit twirls of the mayfly’s wings are spirals in time, spinning a thread that connects us to the long-ago age in which they first arose, before even the first dinosaur walked the earth. When numbers start to peak, the focus shifts from prehistoric individuals to mass spectacle. The most obvious mayflies on the Kennet are large, three-tailed species of the genus Ephemera. Seeing hundreds of thousands of these dancing above the river and resting on buildings and bridges throughout town must have at least some impact on even the most entomophobic of passers-by. It’s not everyday you see big numbers of sizeable, striking insects; in fact, it’s perhaps only close to water that we do at all nowadays. In any other part of the landscape the loss of natural abundance is overwhelming, an increasingly recognised* tragedy that Michael McCarthy calls ‘The Great Thinning’.

This past weekend I took a slightly more rural cycle ride east along the Kennet, starting in Newbury town centre and then making my way along the canal as far as the Thatcham reed beds. Mayfly numbers were now at an impressive peak**, with hundreds-strong hordes looping frantically up and down over waterside trees – moving much faster than those first few Reading debutantes – whilst others rested on low vegetation beside the bank. The odd party of black-headed gulls cruised through at just above treetop level, undoubtedly picking off a few mayflies each for an afternoon snack. Above them two hobbies scythed into view on sharp-angled grey wings, working with their red-trousered feet to pluck morsels out of the air. Too high to say for sure what they were grabbing at, but few dragonflies are on the wing yet so it seems likely they too were partaking of the mayfly bounty.

It’s obvious that waterways are corridors of sanctuary for wildlife, from the relatively undisturbed habitats under the surface to the hard-to-reach and thus untamed strips of wild, rank vegetation that line their banks. That’s not just for obviously wetland-dependent species: last week I saw a house sparrow sat on a Newbury rooftop holding two large mayflies in its beak. I’m sure it’s these and other aquatic insects that help to sustain a vibrant sparrow colony whose patch straddles bushes either side of the canal at the end of our garden. Corridors of life, corridors of hope: in an age of gloom for conservationists, the statistics are often frightening. But unlike with extinct species, the good news about lost abundance is that it is something we can at least partially bring back.

 

 

*Not just recognised but beginning to be backed up by hard evidence. Recent research by a group of scientists working in Germany suggests an average 80% decline in insect biomass, and their data is from nature reserves!

**Although, thanks to ‘shifting baseline syndrome’, I don’t really have any idea how many there ‘should’ be.

Seesaw

May 3rd 2017, June 17th 2016

The seasons are on a seesaw; there’s no smooth forward motion. Thus it was that we found ourselves dipped back into winter a couple of weeks ago, sometimes in and out a few times within a single day. The sun was warm, warm enough to animate hoverflies which emerged to vigorously defend their own favourite sunspot, but the air temperature hovered at around 10 degrees.

Lurking not far above was even colder air, since Britain was balanced on the magic 528hPa atmospheric thickness line. On the ‘thin’ side of the line, precipitation is increasingly likely to fall as snow. When an afternoon shower came on heavy the chill air dragged down with it soon allowed craggy half-melted snowflakes to make it all the way to the surface. By the time I had walked 5 minutes from bus stop to station my coat carried a sheet of ice on the front.  After 15 minutes on the train I alighted at Newbury under a blue sky, where the short walk home was almost long enough for my coat to dry again.

At higher latitudes or altitudes – towards the winter world – these interludes happen later into the year. Last June we rode the Rhaetian Railway to the peak of the Bernina Pass. At 2256 metres above sea level it’s as high as the European rail network gets, discounting specialised dead-end mountain railways. Fresh snow lay an inch thick on the ground, smothering spring flowers and adding an air of appropriateness to seeing our first snow finches.

Species evolved to cope with these vagaries of seasonal weather, at least for short periods. One of the chief threats from climate change is that these odd interludes might be more regularly sustained, or more extreme. Add energy to the system and weather signals are amplified, the peaks higher and the troughs lower. In this way we may still see record-breaking cold snaps despite an overall warming trend, something the American politician James Inhofe was clearly ignorant of when he infamously brandished a snowball on the Senate floor during a debate on climate change.

Back in the present, we still may not be past the last frost. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, the arc of the year is long but it bends towards summer. The swifts are back and for now, despite the many changes we are wreaking on the planetary system, the world is still working.