Mozart’s Starling

Mozart's Starling Book Cover Mozart's Starling
Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Little, Brown and Company
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In her prelude to Mozart’s Starling, Lyanda Lynn Haupt writes, “Common, invasive, aggressive, reviled. Starlings don’t just lie beneath our notice, the sentiment runs, they are actually undeserving of our notice.”

If you love birds but hate starlings, you are not alone. From the day a handful were introduced from England to New York’s Central Park about 130 years ago, until today when millions of starlings have spread over North America, they have become nearly universally detested.

And yet, if you look closely at a starling, at one individual bird, you will see how beautiful it is. Its feathers shine iridescent in the sun, purple, green, glossy black. And if you’re patient and lucky, you may hear it mimic another bird species, or a car siren, or even you.

Starlings are true mimics, meaning they can learn to make the sounds they hear around them, which brings us to how Mozart ended up with one as a pet. The story goes that one day he was walking down the street in Vienna when he heard a familiar melody, a melody from a song he had not yet made public. Intrigued, he followed the sound to a shop and a caged starling who was singing his own musical phrase. He bought the bird and took it home.

When Haupt, a nature writer, was looking for a topic for a new book, she remembered this story and wondered if it was true. Several of her other books are about human interaction with birds, so she thought the Mozart story might be a place to start. Indeed it was.

Haupt then decided that if she was going to begin to understand the relationship Mozart had with his bird, she was going to have to live with a starling, too.

This book will forever change the way you look at starlings.

This book will change forever the way you look at starlings. The stories Haupt tells about her bird, Carmen, are charming, hilarious, poignant. Haupt describes her family’s life with its starling as an endless challenge but one worth the effort and considerable mess.

She extrapolates from her own experiences to what it may have been like for Mozart. She researches the period of his life when he lived with his starling, and goes to Vienna to see for herself the house the Mozarts were living in. We learn about Mozart’s relationships with his father, siblings, wife, and children. We hear about his extraordinary genius and his strangely-shaped ears. Most of us know something about this very famous composer (and some of you, no doubt, know a great deal), but everything in this particular story has a bird at the core of it. That’s a different way of looking at a life.

Haupt also tries to solve the puzzle of how Mozart’s starling knew that little piece of music that hadn’t yet been performed, something that has kept scholars busy for ages.

I found the Mozart chapters interesting and I was moved to dig up some old CDs to listen to, but I loved the stories of Haupt’s own bird.

Her family raises Carmen from a chick. She’s helpless and small when they bring her home but it doesn’t take long before she’s an integral part of the family.

The first sound Carmen decides to mimic is that of the wine stopper coming out of a bottle. As soon as Haupt starts moving a wine glass from the cupboard, Carmen makes the sound. She also learns the coffee grinder. And I won’t ruin anything for you by describing Carmen’s relationship with the family’s cat. Carmen is a riot.

The deeper beauty of the book, though, comes when Haupt writes about the intersection of art and nature, and how we as creative beings can understand ourselves better through our relationships with the wild. She asks us to listen to “the song just beneath our typical hearing, the murmuration that calls the tiniest neurons of our brains into flight….to paint, draw, dance, compose…to open the windows…to be rained upon. To listen with changed ears and sing back what we hear.”

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