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  • Twinkle, Twinkle, Vogel StaarOn Mozart’s Feathered Collaborator
  • Elena Passarello (bio) and
    Illustration by CLAIRE SCULLY


Whistle a little Mozart to a starling in a cage. If it knows humans as creatures that sing and are sung to, the bird will shut its beak. It will arch its starling neck, bending toward your puckered lips. It might bob its dark head back and forth at the line you’ve sent out—the dotted pops of “Papagena, Papageno” or the crystalline shards of the Adagio and Rondo for Glass Harmonica. Though a caged starling is chatty during the day and downright garrulous at night, the moment it locks in on your Mozartean whistle the little bird will only blink, aiming its entire soundless self toward the music coming from you. Note how it nods along with your tuneful body as if to say, Yes, yes, I have it.

But a starling is no parrot. Do not expect that when you whistle “Twinkle, twinkle” you’ll hear a “little star” immediately in return. You’ll have to come back whistling for a day or a week, confirming the sound’s place in the world where the bird perches. And when it does spit back whatever Mozart you’ve fed it, it will be on a starling’s zany terms: a theme from the “Haffner” Symphony punctuated with guttural warbles, or the famous Adagio from his Clarinet Concerto mixed into an uncanny interpretation of your dishwasher. The “Queen of the Night” aria sung in a screech worthy of a Bee Gee.

A few days after that, your line of Mozart will come from the birdcage as a barely recognizable string of filched sounds, all sung together in a line so arrhythmic it’s catchy. You’ll hear Mozart, your own voice, the white noise of the house you live in, plus the recesses of starling instinct: TWINK-LE—bizeeet!—TWINK—“hi! how are you!”—[doorbell]—chackerchackerchackerchacker—LIT-TLE—bweet! bweet! Purrrup!—LIT-TLE—[clanging smoke alarm]—LIT—“hi! how are you”—TLE, TWIN-KLE, LIT-TLE—[that Bee Gee screech]—STAAAAAAR!

This will then be repeated with the maddening obsessiveness of an electronica concert.

We’re not sure why starlings engage in such behavior, but we think it’s because this breed is hardwired to sing to its tribes. There are many in a starling’s life: the little tribe of the monogamous pair, that of the clutch family, the flock in the field, the mob coming home from the neighboring fields to roost together overnight. All [End Page 194]

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[End Page 195]

these tribes are sonic. The male starling sings his long coupling song to his mate while she pecks for food. A young starling sends mad chatter to her close-by kin to feel where the safe world starts and stops. A wizened starling finds his place in the mob by singing long runs of mashed-up noise that prove his vast experience.

This sonic sense of the tribal might explain why, when we see a trilling cloud of 10,000 starlings—each bird watching its seven closest neighbors for the slightest change of speed or angle, dodging hawks en masse with shrieks and chips, beak beats and hard whistles—we find ourselves calling that group not a flock or a swarm or a drove, but a collective noun that’s drenched in sound: a murmuration.

So what kind of murmur began that spring day in Vienna when a twenty-eight-year-old Mozart, jaunty in his garnet coat and gold-rimmed cap, strolled into a shop to whistle at a starling in a cage? That bird must have zeroed in on Mozart’s mouth, drinking-in the whistled seventeen-note opening phrase from his recent piano concerto:

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Mozart’s melody riffs in G on a simple line heard in many a volkslied, so the starling might have been hearing similar tunes from other shoppers that whole month. Or perhaps Mozart himself had been in a few times and had whistled his line enough for the bird to imprint it. No...


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pp. 194-202
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