Tuesday 16 January 2018

Mozart-whistlers eerily quiet

TWO starlings (sturnus vulgaris) visit me in Dublin. They scurry about a garden looking for any suitable morsel. One day last week one found a slug and spent an inordinate amount of time trying to break it up by bashing it on the ground. Eventually, the bird managed to cut a luncheon chop for itself and flew off with the remainder.

It is hard to believe that starlings are on BirdWatch Ireland's Amber List of species of Medium Conservation Concern. Come to think of it, when did you last see a large, dense flock swirling over fields, gliding as if in some magnificent waltz to heavenly music? And have you recently seen a dozen or more descend to search streetscapes for scraps?

Like other species such as house and tree sparrows, populations have plummeted. But there may still exist some sizeable communal roosts (especially in the midlands) where sharing body heat is important as is the endless chattering that the birds enjoy.

Starlings never seem to stop gossiping. They are nature's natural mimics, imitating other birds, barking dogs, meowing cats and the myriad drifting noises of human exchanges, even the ring tones of mobile phones.

A "murmuration of starlings" was an appropriate description given to them by some unknown lexicographer.

They don't really sing -- but you could be fooled. They are not hunted, although I have to confess to having eaten one as a boy in the countryside during hard weather. The meat was white. There was little of it. This was when winkles were picked from shore, boiled and eaten.

In ancient Rome, starlings were caught and trained to talk and the naturalist Pliny the Younger claimed some birds could speak Latin and Greek phrases. This practice is mentioned in Shakespeare's Henry IV Part One.

When the king refuses Hotspur's request to have a ransom paid on his brother-in-law, Earl Mortimer, Hotspur declares: "Nay, I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak/ Nothing but 'Mortimer'".

David Rothenberg, in his book Why Birds Sing, tells of Mozart buying a pet starling and being startled when it whistled a fragment of his latest piano concerto in G major, K453. And not only that, the bird had modified the melody, changing G natural to G sharp, thus creating a sound "centuries ahead of its time".

But Jeffrey Boswall in The Language of Birds speculates that the starling had been taught the song -- or had picked up the piece, based on a folk melody. Anyway, Mozart was so distraught when the bird died that he gave it a proper funeral, even speaking a eulogy at the graveside!

By the 19th Century the starling had lost most of its appeal as a house pet but not before a New York merchant released about 50 unsold birds in Central Park. Within five years the species had colonised Brooklyn, then moved upstate to Niagara Falls causing major ecological upset. Today there are 20 million starlings in America.

Their chattering still fascinates scientists. During one recent study a bird making sounds of phone pips was heard asking, "Do you have a toll-free number?" Another, after listening to some piano tunes, whistled Way Down Upon the Swanee River.

I have no desire to eat my garden starlings but they are uncharacteristically quiet. I shall have to play some tapes, Mozart perhaps, to motivate them. I would not want them to go down the Swanee. . .

Sunday Independent

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