OF ALL the Mozart information to come out in this 200th-anniversary year of the composer's death, none has surprised us quite so much as the theory -- discussed in an article in this paper the other day -- that one of his lesser works was based on the song of a starling. The surprise lay not in what it told us about Mozart (the idea of a great composer being inspired by bird song isn't all that astonishing) but about the supposed charms of the starling.
For as science writer Malcolm Gladwell notes in his article, the common starling is not much appreciated in this country, where it is so common (more than 200 million in all) as to be considered a nuisance, and a homely one at that. In fact, a plague of starlings lurking in trees around the White House became so oppressive to John F. Kennedy's staff that, in despair, they had the terrible screeching of starlings "in distress" recorded and piped out onto the grounds from amplifiers high in the trees, in an effort to scare the birds away. This did not work, but it did inspire Art Buchwald to suggest that they try it out on other groups of pestilential guests, so that the White House grounds would resonate, for example, at the appropriate times with the recorded screeching of "congressmen in distress."
What a revelation, then, given this history, to be told that Europeans have long admired the starling for its ability to mimic human speech and song, that Mozart kept one as a pet and even staged an elaborate funeral when it died, and that two psychologists now believe that particular bird's song was the source of Mozart's "Musikalischer Spass" ("A Musical Joke").
The psychologists, Meredith West and Andrew King of Indiana University, have studied starlings in captivity and found that when their mimicry was recorded, people were usually unable to tell the bird's voice from a human one. The starlings recited snatches of poetry, they sang long passages of human song (usually off key), and one of them repeatedly shouted "Dee-fense!" whenever the television set was turned on, apparently after having spent too many hours in the company of human basketball fans.
Will all this lead to a new understanding of the starling? Possibly, but it could take a while. Starlings, whatever their singular charms, have a tendency not to be singular. They roost in gangs of what seem to be a million or so, and create a noise that may be music to a Mozart but is simply a din to most people. And even if, somewhere in that raucous gathering, one of them could be heard reciting Keats, one mimicking the sound of the oboe and several singing grand opera, we'd still be inclined to think of the starling as the sort of bird who doesn't have his heart in high culture -- one who would in fact probably conclude his rendition of an aria from "Don Giovanni" with a snort, a derisive whistle and a chorus of "Dee-fense, dee-fense."