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How Mozart’s pet starling gave him a good run for his money


A murmuration of starlings seen in Co Roscommon. Photo: Johnny Bambury

A murmuration of starlings seen in Co Roscommon. Photo: Johnny Bambury

A murmuration of starlings seen in Co Roscommon. Photo: Johnny Bambury

In some rural places starlings swirl and roost in their hundreds — rather than thousands as attributed to West Cork last week — and robins are an international attraction.

Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) form tight units that flow together to spectacular effect. They often appear around twilight and are known as murmurations, their synchronicity prompting naturalists to wonder if telepathy is involved. Not so.

Starling activity may be attention-grabbing but robins are the real heartbreakers. I look for my regular visitor to where earth was turned to welcome blossom.

But last week I saw a striking card image of a redbreast-in-hand sent by a reader in Mullingar, who says they are lucky enough to experience the joy of a robin coming to an outstretched hand, a “magical sensation” every day.

The reader lives along the Royal Canal and says it is the place to experience some “robin therapy of tiny claws on one’s hand and the intense look on Mr Robin’s face”. The custom-printed card has a “robin moments with love” logo, all quite impressive.

There is no doubt these little fellows evoke feelings of sincere affection — a mention here brought reader responses from France and the far side of the world. Perhaps the bird kindled some thoughts of home from abroad.

The conglomerations of starlings, which once were unwelcome because of guano droppings, have flight reaction times that make Olympic athletes look slow, says one UK academic.

The great bird formation is to make it more difficult for predators such as sparrowhawks to pick off individual birds. Professor Anne Goodenough of Gloucester University says the birds do not follow any master plan in those huge flocks — each bird flies in formation with seven others.​

Starlings are comfortable around humans. Along Howth harbourfront small groups or single birds can be found darting about underfoot looking for food morsels missed by gulls.

Public parks and sports grounds are popular at half-time when there’s a chance invertebrates may have been exposed by activity.

From Howth a reader once sent a picture of a rose-coloured starling (Sturnus roseus), taken in a car park. This was a very rare blow-in from Central Europe of which less than a dozen might reach Ireland or Britain in summer.

The wheezing and bubbling starling may not be a singer but it is an incredible mimic, imitating other birds, mewing cats, barking dogs, mobile phones, radio snatches and that’s apart from its endless chatter, gurgles and whistles.

In ancient Rome, according to the naturalist Pliny, they were trained to speak Latin and Greek, and Shakespeare gives the bird a mention in a play.

David Rothenberg in his book Why Birds Sing tells of Mozart’s pet starling whistling a fragment of his then latest concerto, K. 453 in G Major — but the bird changed it to G Sharp, creating a sound “ahead of its time”. When the bird died the composer and friends gave it a “proper funeral”.

Like many other bird species, starling numbers have taken a hit in recent years so appreciate their iridescent plumage and high-stepping antics and chatter all the more when next you come upon them.

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