THIS SPRING afternoon, a steady drizzle falls from a low ceiling of cloud. It brings oils to the surface of street and sidewalk, glazing the ubiquitous brick. At the end of my block, a starling hunkers down on a telephone wire, its feathers damp with an iridescent sheen of purple, blue, and green. Rain drips from its yellow beak. I whistle a tune as I approach, and the bird listens, arching its neck and cocking its head slightly from side to side. Another wings toward me from down the alley, tail tilted downward, wings compact and slick. The rhythm of a starling’s undulating flight is unmistakable: three rapid strokes followed by a glide.
The stationary starling bursts into song. It rattles like a shaken can of spray paint, then modulates through a wolf whistle, a screech, the woof of a bulldog, and a cardinal’s liquid phrase. But this composite song arrives through a blur of distortion, dust on the phonograph needle. Though the sources are recognizable, it couldn’t fool anyone. Down the block, the crank on a lawn mower won’t quite catch in the rain.
The starling, like its cousin the mynah bird, improvises a pastiche of motifs drawn from life. An adult starling may collect sixty or more songs from which to pick and choose. These snippets are altered, rearranged, and spliced into an explosive sequence. We can discern in them what absorbs the starling’s attention: predators, rivals, and anomalies. These echoes are not only expressive but also exploratory. To discover what a sound means, the mimic essays it on the air, gauging the effect of each stolen phrase on its fellow creatures.
Whatever its purposes, mimicry sealed the starling to us. Since Roman times, at least, starlings have been kept as pets. How could anyone room with such a raucous creature? Between bursts of song, their young often keep up endless, squishy calls like wet sneakers. But starlings can master human utterances, repeating words and phrases, sometimes suggesting a connected discourse just out of hearing.
According to his biographers, Mozart had a pet starling of which he was inordinately fond. He purchased the bird in 1784 and buried it with a funeral procession and elegy three years later. The pomp of the occasion was partly farcical, but Mozart’s affection for the bird was real, apparently sealed when it learned a melodic theme from his Piano Concerto in G major, K. 453. Vogel Star, as he called the bird, would whistle variations on the tune, altering a note and adjusting the rhythm very slightly. Das war schön, that was beautiful, he recorded in his notebook. Some scholars have detected the bird’s influence on Mozart’s Ein musikalischer Spass (A Musical Joke), K. 522, completed shortly after the starling’s death, which features an illogical patchwork of stock material, asymmetry, and haphazard polytonality. Mozart had a starling’s heart — absurd, bawdy, fierce, and tender. Mozart of the dirty joke, quick riposte, double-entendre, and whistled melody.
If the single starling is a wonder of melodic invention, a flock of them forms harmonic counterpoint. Melody against melody, their simultaneous lines of flight cross without crashing. A shoal of starlings banks in the air above the rusted roofs of an abandoned copper smelter. Until it was shut down early this century, it poured forth sludge, baghouse dust, refractory brick, and acids. The dense, particulate flock rushes through dereliction. Their sheer exuberance forms a complex pattern, thousands together, like the rose of metal filings around a magnet. Elsewhere murmurations reach a million birds, storms of birds, concentric “ring angels” vast enough to register on radar screens.
The cloud of birds descends, becoming a concentrated darkness in oak limbs. The starlings begin a dusk chorus, condensing all they have heard of relevance or curiosity. Just as dreamwork transforms the residues of desire, the birds’ song sifts the ambience of the day. It rises to a great cacophony against the last light before diminishing.