A bird lover discovers the joys of living with a starling.
One day, glimpsing a gathering of starlings outside her window, bird-watcher and naturalist Haupt (The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild, 2013, etc.) happened to recall that Mozart kept a pet starling, a choice that seemed to her extraordinary. Starlings, she reveals, are among the most “reviled” birds: invasive, aggressive, omnivorous, and destructive. Some call them “rats with wings” and would happily obliterate the entire species. They oust other birds from their nests, voraciously eat food crops and feed from cattle and swine troughs, and cause $800 million in agricultural damage each year. Orphan starlings are killed if brought to animal shelters, which is how Haupt happened to raise one herself. Weaving together cheerful memoir, natural history, and biography, the author celebrates her “insatiably social” pet starling, Carmen; investigates Mozart’s experience with his avian “companion, distraction, consolation, and muse”; and offers intriguing details about starling behavior. Mozart discovered his starling in a bird shop in Vienna, when it apparently was able to sing a motif from one of his concertos. Fascinated by this bit of lore, Haupt has discovered that starlings, rare among birds, are able to mimic sounds. Carmen, for example, has a repertoire of 15 phrases, including “Hi, honey,” and “C’mere, honey!” Haupt is completely entranced by her feathered friend, allowing her to fly freely around the house, perch on her shoulder or in her hair, and scamper across her fingers as she writes at the computer, making changes to documents and emails that Haupt thinks is evidence of her intelligence. Of course, the bird poses some problems: she swallows things that could kill her (a rubber band, a garbanzo bean), and she poops constantly, everywhere. Like all birds that fly a lot, starlings need to eliminate waste that can weigh them down. Haupt provides visitors with “poop shirts.”
Linguists, audiologists, ornithologists, music historians, and Mozart’s many biographers contribute to this lively investigation of a small wild bird.