Linguists, audiologists, ornithologists, music historians, and Mozart’s many biographers contribute to this lively...



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.

Pub Date: April 4, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-316-37089-9

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Feb. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2017

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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...


Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.


Distinguished natural history writer and explorer Lopez (Outside, 2014, etc.) builds a winning memoir around books, voyages, and biological and anthropological observations.

“Traveling, despite the technological innovations that have brought cultural homogenization to much of the world, helps the curious and attentive itinerant understand how deep the notion goes that one place is never actually like another.” So writes the author, who has made a long career of visiting remote venues such as Antarctica, Greenland, and the lesser known of the Galápagos Islands. From these travels he has extracted truths about the world, such as the fact that places differ as widely as the people who live in them. Even when traveling with scientists from his own culture, Lopez finds differences of perception. On an Arctic island called Skraeling, for instance, he observes that if he and the biologists he is walking with were to encounter a grizzly feeding on a caribou, he would focus on the bear, the scientists on the whole gestalt of bear, caribou, environment; if a native of the place were along, the story would deepen beyond the immediate event, for those who possess Indigenous ways of knowledge, “unlike me…felt no immediate need to resolve it into meaning.” The author’s chapter on talismans—objects taken from his travels, such as “a fist-size piece of raven-black dolerite”—is among the best things he has written. But there are plentiful gems throughout the looping narrative, its episodes constructed from adventures over eight decades: trying to work out a bit of science as a teenager while huddled under the Ponte Vecchio after just having seen Botticelli’s Venus; admiring a swimmer as a septuagenarian while remembering the John Steinbeck whom he’d met as a schoolboy; gazing into the surf over many years’ worth of trips to Cape Foulweather, an Oregon headland named by Capt. James Cook, of whom he writes, achingly, “we no longer seem to be sailing in a time of fixed stars, of accurate chronometers, and of reliable routes.”

Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.

Pub Date: March 20, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-394-58582-6

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

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