A book titled “Ornithology of Shakespeare” — obscure at best — is a clue to why North America has millions of European starlings.
It was a bonus I discovered in another book, probably the best book I have read about birds: “Mozart’s Starling” by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. She explains why we have starlings, then tells of the joy and surprises of raising one.
You might know about the Bronx pharmacist, Eugene Schieffelin, who wanted to bring to New York City’s Central Park all of the bird species mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. Schieffelin’s guide book to ornithology and Shakespeare was written by James Edward Harting, published in 1871.
Following that book, Schieffelin imported nightingales, skylarks, chaffinches and more — lovely birds all — but they didn’t survive a Central Park winter. The starlings did.
Starlings, by the way, are mentioned but once in Shakespeare’s hundreds of avian references. What are the odds?
Mozart enters the story because he kept a pet starling. He heard it sing what sounded to him like a phrase from a concerto on which he was working. He bought the bird.
That leads us to the heart of the book: author Haupt plucking a baby starling from its nest, and raising it, sort of a la Mozart.
Starlings are unpopular birds with many of us, and in some cases hated, Haupt says. They are non-natives competing successfully with native birds, particularly for nesting cavities. They can gather in flocks of thousands.
Haupt points out that while it is easy to hate starlings by the millions it is much harder to hate one intelligent, endearing individual like the bird she named Carmen. (Mozart called his Star. It you watch a starling in flight you see its pointed wings, its pointed tail, and its sharply pointed bill — a star.)
Haupt’s book has several themes. It explores birds and their behavior, starlings in particular, then Mozart, music, our relationships with animals, and our attitudes about birds.
Starlings might be scorned, but they are survivors. They eat anything, are creative in finding nest sites, are clever, curious about their world, and just plain smart.
They also are quite handsome. “Starlings are painted like oil slicks,” the author writes, “layered with shining purple, blue, magenta, and green.” Starling feathers are iridescent. They glitter as the birds turn in the light.
Starlings are excellent mimics, as many birders have learned in the field. If starlings are around, be careful in assigning positive identification to a bird call or song. It could be the starling, riffing.
Carmen, Haupt writes, can say “Hi, Carmen,” “Hi honey,” and “C’mere.” She can make the sound of a coffee grinder, the sound of a cork pulled from a bottle. She can make these sounds as Haupt prepares to produce them herself. Carmen, Haupt writes, anticipates and participates.
Our starling is a member of the Old World Sturnidae family, over 100 species of starlings, mynas, and oxpeckers. The bird’s Latin name is Sturnus vulgaris. Not vulgar as coarse. Vulgar as common.
That they are, spreading rapidly from Central Park to cover the country. Haupt says they seem to have reached a population maximum here, no increases noted for the past 30 years. They are on decline in their homeland.
Read Jim Williams’ birding blog at startribune.com/wingnut.