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

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Book Review: A Sweet, Wild Note by Richard Smyth

SWNI’ve never found learning birdsong particularly difficult, though when I started birdwatching something over a decade ago I certainly spent a lot of time staring at a singing bush waiting for the songster to reveal itself and thus its identity. In 2011 I agreed to take on an MSc research project that involved surveying woodland birds by ear, and suddenly the need to be able to identify birdsong took on a fresh urgency. That spring I finally sorted out nuthatch trills, great tit improvisation and the perennially tricky blackcap vs. garden warbler* and now consider myself a passable bird listener, though my talents are as nothing to the true masters of the art. It’s a useful skill, whether for utilitarian purposes such as surveys or the mildly smug feeling of knowing something that many people don’t.

But as Richard Smyth shows in A Sweet, Wild Note, there are many more ways to listen to birdsong, as varied as the songs themselves and the experiences of their human audience. ‘Birdsong is a wonderfully malleable material’, as he puts it, beginning a learned yet lighthearted tour through poetic and other literary interpretations of birdsong stretching from Old Testament times to the present. These can be ecstatic, often metaphorical and sometimes stretch birdsong to the point of subversion—thinking particularly of how poetry ‘planted an English flag in the skylark’s song’ even though larks are equally likely to be singing over German or Spanish fields.

When not playing with birdsong as poetic raw material, human culture has tried to capture it altogether. Smyth takes us through the history of recorded birdsong and how this has fed back into culture through its use in music. A form of captured song that is perhaps less obvious to us today is the practice of caging birds and the surprising follow-on idea that birdsong’s natural state can be improved upon. Yet of course birdsong is, as Smyth writes, ‘tied in tightly with lots of other things—ideas of place, nature, of biophony … diminished when it’s made to stand alone.’ Today this is recognised by ecologists: for example, Smyth touches on Bernie Krause’s fascinating work on soundscape ecology and the acoustic niche hypothesis.

Ultimately birdsong is, together with other natural sounds, the sound of the landscape itself. It becomes for us ‘a means of orientation’, a phrase I particularly appreciated, thinking of how the sounds of birds bring up memories or impressions of particular places and times:

In this context, when we ask ‘what does the bird’s song mean?’ we don’t give an answer like ‘freedom’ or ‘exultation’ or challenge’; we might say ‘Wytham Woods in spring’ or ‘a saltmarsh in winter’, or ‘a seabird colony in the breeding season’. It’s about what it means to us.

As a self-confessed recent ‘birdsong sceptic’, Smyth has been accumulating his own meanings and shares them throughout. Though the experiences are his own, I recognised and enjoyed his delight at the mad beauty of blackcap song or the thrill of hearing your first turtle dove. The fact that one needs to seek out a first turtle dove at all is a good clue that all is not well in the world of birdsong, and Smyth does not shy away from talk of future silent springs. Even for those with no particular appreciation of birdsong, the idea of a world where the birds are silenced is probably an ominous one. Smyth points out that this is an effect exploited by filmmakers to induce a sense of threat, one in fact deployed pre-cinema by Thomas Hardy in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. He summarises the threats to songbirds with a single word: neglect. I think that’s a fair assessment, and his proposed solution of greater attentiveness captures well the starting place for all the best endeavours of human culture, whether poetic or scientific.

Smyth writes: ‘Birdsong … comes with baggage. But maybe we could work with that’. This brief yet comprehensive reflection on the meaning of birdsong works through baggage very well indeed. I would highly recommend it as a thoughtful, accessible and witty introduction to the world of birdsong and defy anybody who reads this book not to resolve to pay more attention themselves.

A Sweet, Wild Note: What we Hear When The Birds Sing is published today (April 13th) by Elliott & Thompson. Thanks to E&T for providing a review copy.

*When I say sorted out, that’s not to say we don’t all need our annual period of getting our ear in. That’s part of the charm of migrant songsters.

A few singing birds I’ve filmed in a very amateur way. Much better to go out and listen to the real thing!

The Return of the Native

Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native is ostensibly about the titular character, Clym Yeobright, and the chain of fate set off by his return from Paris to a remote part of rural Wessex. The re-entrance in local society of this sophisticated, thoughtful local-son-made-good is the key to a complex love triangle, in this case perhaps more accurately a love pentangle.

Stick with the human drama, and you’ve got a classic old fashioned 19th-century novel – an entertaining cast of characters circling through a big story. However, the real star of this book is not the native but the place he returns to, Egdon Heath. Egdon is the impassive wild backdrop that puts petty human concerns in perspective. It is central to the story but utterly indifferent to the fate of its inhabitants, simply carrying on in its natural cycles of life and death through fair weather and (more often) foul.

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