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How to Know the Birds: No. 10, Dvořák’s Vireo

You might have heard of Mozart’s starling. Lyanda Lynn Haupt recently wrote a book, Mozart’s Starling, that’s received a fair bit of acclaim. The short version of the story goes like this: Back in 1784, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart acquired a captive European starling, Sturnus vulgaris, and somehow taught the bird to sing the opening bars from the finale of the composer’s piano concerto in G major. Needless to say, there’s a bit more to it than that. There’s an entire book out on the matter, as I just said. And, by the way, you can read Capper Nichols’ review of Mozart’s Starling in the “Book & Media Reviews” column of the June 2019 issue of Birding magazine.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart taught a captive European starling to sing the opening bars from the finale of the composer’s G major piano concerto, K. 453.

Another famous musical bird is Dvořák’s tanager. This story is basically the converse of Mozart’s starling. Instead of teaching a store-bought tanager to sing a song, the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák incorporated the music of a wild, non-captive, free-flying scarlet tanager into the rollicking scherzo of his “American” string quartet in F major. Or so we’d all thought ever since Dvořák penned the “American” quartet in June of 1893.

Antonín Dvořák incorporated into the scherzo from his “American” string quartet, Op. 96, the song of a bird he believed to be the scarlet tanager.

A few years ago, I was, for whatever reason, studying the score of the scherzo of Dvořák’s quartet, and it struck me that the celebrated “tanager” passage, measures 21–24, is an absolutely terrible transcription of Piranga olivacea, the scarlet tanager. However, it provides an eerily close match to an utterly different-looking bird species, the red-eyed vireo, Vireo olivaceus.

I wrote up the analysis and got it published, and I’m pleased that Mark McKone and David A. Beccue at Carleton College have extended the result to the rest of the scherzo. Part of what’s going on here is purely technical, requiring comparison between musical scores and birdsong spectrograms. Read the report in the technical literature if you’re interested. But another part, a big part, of what’s going on is, for want of a better word, perceptual. To be blunt: How on Earth did Dvořák confuse the searing tanager with the dinky vireo? And a corollary: How did this screw-up go unnoticed by generations of bird and music lovers?

A couple days ago, I was birding near the Boulder County foothills, and I came upon a singing red-eyed vireo, a low-grade rarity in the region. So I whipped out my pocket recorder and obtained high-quality audio documentation of this persistently singing bird. Then I tried to get a confirmatory photo. After a lot of straining and angling about and pacing back and forth, I finally got a blurry photo of a sort-of-a-bird way up in the dense foliage of a mighty crack willow, Salix fragilis. Even if you know what you’re doing, even if you’re specifically searching for a red-eyed vireo, the species is hard to see.

A red-eyed vireo sings its incessant song in Boulder County, Colorado, June 6, 2019. Without seeing the bird, though, how would you know what species it is? Audio by © Ted Floyd.

Dvořák, fresh off the boat from eastern Europe, had zero experience with vireos. Okay, he was fresh off the train from New York City, newly arrived in Spillville, Iowa, of all places, where he immediately began writing the “American” quartet. As the composer was getting to work, he heard an “annoying” and “incessant” bird, asked someone the name of the bird, and was informed that it was a scarlet tanager. The rest is music history.

 

Left: The author heard the vireo in this sprawling crack willow. Center: Peer into the crown of the willow, and you see nothing but green. Right: The bird sang continually but gave only this brief view. Photos by © Ted Floyd. (Click on the images to enlarge.)

I totally get Dvořák’s error. The dude was busy composing one of the greatest string quartets of all time. Not only that, Dvořák was tending to his large family and adjusting to life in a new land far from home. I have to say, though, I’m somewhat more impressed that it took well over a century for the rest of us to figure this out. The tanager passage, sung by the first violin, is so perfectly evocative of the experience of hearing a red-eyed vireo declaiming above the din and clamor of a busy summer afternoon in Spillville or any of ten thousand other places just like it.

In this passage from the third movement (Scherzo: Molto vivace) of the “American” quartet, the first violin sings the song of the red-eyed vireo. Mark McKone and David A. Beccue have shown that the vireo’s influence pervades much of the entire movement.

 

Here’s the deal. We all “knew” it was a scarlet tanager because, long ago, some expert or authority proclaimed it thus. And then we got trapped into that way of thinking. That’s not discouraging to me. On the contrary, it’s thrilling. It makes me wonder what else we’re missing.

 

 

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Starlings and Humans on the Continuum of Life

A review by Capper Nichols

Mozart’s Starling, by Lyanda Lynn Haupt

Little, Brown, and Company, 2017

288 pages, softcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14944 

Out in the California desert, a dozen starlings perched in the branches of a spindly honey mesquite. The tree grew out of a concrete island at a roadside oasis, a combo gas station, convenience store, and fast food restaurant just north of the Salton Sea. When I got out of my car, none of the birds moved, though I stood within a half dozen feet of them. They remained just as they were, hunched and dark and iridescent, waiting for someone to drop a french fry. I shuddered.

In the opening pages of Mozart’s Starling, Lyanda Lynn Haupt acknowledges the starling’s bad reputation and describes some of the good reasons for it. She knows that the North American reader almost certainly comes to the subject with a feeling of dislike, even disgust. If it had been almost any other species in that honey mesquite tree, the proximity would have charmed me. Even the few scavenger seagulls lingering nearby were more appealing creatures. 

But Haupt’s opening acknowledgement of such attitudes is only, it’s clear, a prelude to an effort to change the reader’s mind about the European Starling. Or maybe not change it completely, but at least open it up some. I was resistant to this obvious strategy of reverse psychology, but in the end she brought me around, at least to some degree.

Not that the author attempts to fully rehabilitate the starling. She writes, “I am not a starling apologist.” But, yes and no. It depends on which of the starlings we’re talking about. There seem to be four in this book: foremost is the starling she raises from a chick, her beloved Carmen; second is Mozart’s starling, Star, his pet bird for three years in Vienna (and, rhetorically, Carmen’s predecessor and twin); third, the species, “the European starling,” as a subject of natural history and scientific research; and fourth, the invasive, pillaging North American starling horde. It’s only the last that Haupt will have no truck with. “I wish them eradicated from the country as much as anyone,” she writes, “as long as Carmen stays here with me.” 

It’s worth briefly recounting the story of starling invasion, though it’s probably familiar to most birders. The blame can be specifically placed on a nineteenth century Bronx pharmacist, Eugene Schieffelin, who in 1890 loosed 80 imported starlings in Central Park. Today their descendents number two hundred million and blanket the continent; single, dense flocks can be a crushing one million birds strong. According to a Cornell University study, they cause $800 million in agricultural damage annually. They often outcompete other bird species, especially cavity nesters like woodpeckers and bluebirds. In 1960, an airliner went down in Boston shortly after takeoff, when it hit a large flock of starlings; 62 people on board died in the crash. 

Haupt describes these dire impacts and more. But her story is larger, encompassing all four of the different starling narratives. The main and most personal story focuses on Carmen, whom she writes of in the familiar terms of a mother raising her child. However, Haupt is not just a surrogate mother but a “master birder,” a title she gives herself on her website and which the book shows is well deserved. Besides her ornithological expertise, earned in part through work in bird research and rehabilitation, she proves a master of secondary research as well, skillfully describing recent science on bird song and mimicry and on linguistics and language. Haupt brings those same meticulous research skills to the Mozart portions of the book, synthesizing and sometimes correcting the vast Mozart biographic literature. She also travels to Vienna and Salzburg to track down traces of Mozart and his life with his own starling.

Carmen’s unfolding story in our household—both physical and aural—mingles constantly with the story of Mozart and Star.” Though these two stories, along with the starling science, are woven together throughout Haupt’s book, Carmen dominates the first half, while Mozart and his bird get the bulk of attention in the second. Still, Carmen remains the main character, followed by Mozart himself. The composer’s bird is a historically shadowy figure, and the sketchy record gives Haupt less to work with. 

So, the book is an engaging account of raising a starling and a nice bit of history writing about a fairly obscure part of the fascinating Mozart’s life, as well as a satisfying explanation of starling natural history, especially the matter of vocalizations. These parts are smoothly blended together, and they add up to a successful work. But Haupt has something more in mind than only educating the reader about starlings and sussing out an obscure bit of Mozartiana. 

The big idea she wants to get at, it seems, is the nature of cross-species relations between humans and animals. What sort of communication and connection is possible in such relations? Specifically, what is happening when humans and starlings interact closely over a long period of time? Carmen is at the center of the book because she offers the necessary case study. Haupt and Carmen live together, which provides of course great opportunity for observation, but more, the chance to develop a relationship—which they do. Mozart is in the book because he also lived with a starling and experienced a similar kind of intimacy. And because he’s Mozart. 

Haupt writes, “I believe it is a natural human tendency to seek and to recognize connection across species boundaries.” But she also knows that there’s much skepticism about the possibility of such a bridge, that “the Cartesian belief in the absolute separateness of lives… maintains a foothold in in the traditions of our modern culture.” 

In arguing for connection, she concentrates much of her effort on the matter of language. She builds a case first by explaining starling mimicry, which is a highly developed ability (starlings are in the same family as the mynas). Haupt describes both Carmen’s vocal progress—“Our baby had said her first word!”—and the scientific study of avian, especially starling, vocal behavior. In a subsequent chapter, “Chomsky’s Starling,” she takes up linguistic theory, citing one major study that correlates human and bird vocal learning and another that finds pattern-recognition capacities in starlings that Noam Chomsky has claimed are unique to humans.

While acknowledging that starlings do not approach the complexity of human language practice, Haupt celebrates such science for its part in pushing us ever closer to “a new paradigm shift in the nature of human discourse.” In this paradigm, humanity is not unique but “on a continuum of being, of life.” Such decentering of the human experience is only the latest movement on a slope we started slipping down in the sixteenth century when a reluctant Copernicus published his bombshell theory. And we’re still, it seems, engaged in the long-term effort of processing the knowledge that we’re not the center and purpose of the universe. But if such recognitions better describe our place in nature, do they bring us any closer to all that is not human? Does the link between, say, starling and human language patterns put us in closer contact with each other?

Yes, in the sense that there can be a greater sympathy between species. Or, to be more accurate, better human sympathy for other species and for our correspondences with them. Knowing what Haupt has to tell me, I can see those gas station starlings in a different light, I can better appreciate our deep accord. And I am less likely to dismiss them as unworthy of my regard. But it doesn’t seem that they can see me as anything other than a creature that occasionally and randomly drops French fries.

This is not to say that Haupt’s Carmen, or Mozart’s Star, didn’t respond more fully to their human companions. There’s every indication that they both did, and that’s fascinating behavior. If not exactly revelatory. While bonding with a starling might be fairly unusual, human-animal bonding is not; consider, taking the most obvious example, the millions of human-dog companion pairs. Dogs aren’t as vocally adept as starlings, but they manage to make their feelings known and seem often well attuned to those of their humans. 

The difference between the desert gas station starlings and Haupt’s Carmen is on the one side wildness, on the other domesticity (that is, captivity). It certainly is interesting that we can cultivate close, communicative relations with other species, as does Haupt with Carmen. But to do so, she had to pluck the young bird from its nest and then confine it in her own house. Carmen is certainly made comfortable, with her own roomy aviary, as well as the freedom, at times, to roam about the house. But only when all the windows are closed so she cannot escape (and when the cat is shut away, for obvious reasons). 

So the experience of connection, while genuine, heartfelt, even reciprocal, is possible only under conditions of enforced proximity. To call it a type of “animal testing” might be extreme, but the point is that the experience is a controlled experiment. The starling is chosen, it can’t choose. 

Could Carmen choose? Not as a chick. But maybe as an adult; it’s possible, if maybe romantic, to imagine her coming and going from an open window, living her life between the indoors and outdoors, at home both with her humans and in the “wild.” But not really. As Haupt explains, Carmen has never developed any of the skills or knowledge necessary to survive as a wild starling; she simply wouldn’t last very long if she did get loose from the house. 

The issue of reciprocity is nearly always an element of human-animal stories. Inevitably, since in entering into close and friendly relation with the animal, the human grants it a sort of “personhood.” Haupt certainly does so with Carmen, and she’s a good enough writer to succeed in portraying Carmen as an individual, not just a species. That feels like an important accomplishment with any animal—but more so with a starling. Yet despite her appreciation for Carmen, there’s a lingering sense of guilt, which only emerges into the open on the last page of the book. Haupt writes, “I’ll offer one last thought: Carmen brings joy and depth and insight to our family. I believe she has a good life…. But not one single day passes that I do not wish I could see her fly free.”

All that has come before in this lovely and satisfying book suggests that the experience was worth the cost, but it seems Haupt couldn’t quite finish until she acknowledged Carmen’s unknowing sacrifice.

– Capper Nichols lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, where some of the best nearby birding is to be found at Bass Ponds in the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Capper teaches humanities and writing courses at the University of Minnesota on such topics as environmental history, technology studies, and the science essay. 

Recommended citation:

Nichols, C. 2019. Starlings and Humans on the Continuum of Life [a review of Mozart’s Starling, by Lyanda Lynn Haupt]. Birding 50.3: 67-68.

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