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Mozart's starling: Salutations from 'one upstart species to another'

By Jayne Spencer
From our archives: Feb. 17, 1991

A decade-long study of the mimetic repertoires of starlings may shed new light on a historical collaboration between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and a starling which shared his life from 1784-1787.

Meredith West, professor of psychology and biology at Indiana University, and Andrew King, senior scientist in the Department of Psychology at IU, hope that their work will not only provide new information to music historians exploring the complexities of the famous composer, but spark further interest in the "social chemistry" of vocal learning.

In a symposium presentation today (Feb. 17) at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, West discussed the two psychologists' work with the species Sturnus vulgaris (European starling) and played audiotaped samples of the birds' remarkable ability to mimic. The birds' facility at imitating what they hear has been known since antiquity, West said. In their murmurings can be heard cats meowing, roosters crowing, babies crying, horns honking, doors closing and hammers pounding--long "soliloquies" that, in captive birds, are interwoven with human speech and uttered mannerisms.

It is, said West, a form of "social sonar."The focus of the IU researchers work has been on birds living in interactive contact with humans. All the birds mimicked human sounds, including clear words, sounds recognizable as speech and whistled versions of human songs. The most striking feature among these birds, West said, has been their tendency to copy connected discourse and to re-create in mimicry sequential events--such as dogs barking, doors opening and closing, a voice greeting a starling; or an alarm clock ringing, followed by dishes clinking and human conversation.

In the March-April 1990 issue of American Scientist, West and King document the nonsensical combinations of mimicked sounds as well as the seemingly sensible ones in the birds they studied. One of their aims has been to expand interest in the use of vocal behavior by animals as a means of exploring the world.

"We hypothesize," said West, "that birds such as starlings use acoustic probes to test the animate properties of their environment. Much as bats or dolphins use echo-location to estimate distance, starlings use social sonar comprised of echoed sounds produced to judge behavioral reverberations."

Take, for instance, an average day in the home life of a captive starling who has picked up with relative ease the nuances of human sound around him.

West documents one hapless bird, caught in a web of string, shrieking "Basic research!" at its owners; another screeching "I have a question!" as it squirms while having its feet doctored. The speech patterns of one bird routinely precedes its rendition of "hi" with the sound of a human sniffle--a combination traced to his caregiver being allergic.The researchers found that the utterings of such comical and/or end earing combinations did much to facilitate attention from humans. And similarly, the researchers found clear evidence linking the effects of human companionship on avian vocal capacities. Trying to tutor the starlings using tapes of the caregiver's voice singing songs and reciting prose produced no evidence of mimicry.

"The starlings produced many rambling, whistled tunes composed of songs originally sung or whistled to them, intermingled with whistles of unknown origin and other sounds," West said. "The tendency to sing off-key and to fracture the phrasing of the music at unexpected points--from a human perspective--was common. One starling whistled the first line of `Dixie,' frequently interjecting lines from 'The Star-Spangled Banner.'"All the birds the researchers studied in interactive contact showed an interest in whistling and music when it was performed. Striking an attentive stance, West said, they would arch their necks, moving their heads back and forth.

"Their lively interest in the activities of their caregivers afforded a conspicuous sense of human-avian companionship, a condition that may have been essential in motivating birds to select particular models," West said.

"Would Mozart, a connoisseur of sound, have been any less vulnerable to such behavior?" the researcher asked. The composer purchased his starling in the spring of 1784, recording the transaction along with 17 notes of a musical score and the comment "That was wonderful!" in his diary of expenses.

"The theme whistled by the starling must indeed have induced wonder because it occurs in the final movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto in G Major, K. 453, written only a month earlier and at that time, not yet performed in public," West said. West explored how the starling acquired Mozart's music as well as the more intriguing proposition: did Mozart "borrow" the motif from his new pet, having visited the pet shop weeks prior to purchasing the bird?

West detailed other expressions of Mozart's relationship with the starling, including an analysis of a piece of music (K. 522, A Musical Joke) the composer completed the week after the starling's death and formal funeral, passages of which "possess the compositional autograph of a starling."

The text of the funeral poem and the orchestration o f the bird's burial suggest that Mozart had been as captivated by his starling as the caregivers in her study, West said, a view contrary to present-day opinions held by many music scholars about Mozart's personality and the object of his grief.

"Perhaps when next you encounter an assembly of starlings, you will, as did Mozart, stop and listen," West said. "And perhaps in their sounds, you too might hear salutations from one upstart species to another."

Click here for more on the reproductive success of the feckless cowbird.

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Publication date: April 26, 2002
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