The composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had a pet starling. One of those big nasty pest birds everybody hates.
But Mozart loved his starling, according to Lyanda Lynn Haupt, author of her newest book, "Mozart's Starling."
The starling, or Sturnus Vulgaris, was introduced to America in 1890 when 60 birds were released in New York's Central Park. Since then, their numbers have exploded. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said they are "considered an agricultural pest in some areas, eating grains, sprouting seeds, and livestock feed."
That doesn't bother Haupt; in fact, she finds it amusing.
"The dissonance here is wonderful because we have one of our most sublime western classical composers, who had not just as a companion, but as an actual muse, this starling," the Seattle-based writer said. "An invasive bird in North America and, safe to say, the most hated bird in all of the country by conservationists, agriculturists, bird watchers and even nature writers like me."
Despite hating starlings, Haupt was captivated by the story of a beloved composer loving a reviled bird, and she did some intensive research to capture the story. First, she had to verify it was not an apocryphal story, that Mozart actually did own a starling.
She found that it was.
"There's an ephemera trail in Mozart's notes and letters, he kept a notebook for a while, and he recorded two things about the starling, one, that it imitated the motif of a beautiful concerto he just completed and the second one was that he paid a few kreuzers for it and bought it and took it home," Haupt said. "So, we know from his own notebook that he had this starling."
Haupt studied wild starling research and traveled to Vienna and walked the street beneath the apartment where Mozart lived when he bought the bird. She traversed the streets and shops nearby where he might have purchased it.
The story goes that Mozart heard the bird singing a tune very much like a composition he was working on. No one knows if that part is true. Haupt says it could be. "Starlings are highly social and verbal. Known to be excellent mimics. They're as good as parrots. It's no surprise a starling could mimic the motif," Haupt said.
Mozart was apparently delighted by the starling's ability to mimic and alter his compositions. He recorded the bird's artistic changes in his journal.
"The bird changed the concerto in G-major. It kept the F-sharp but added a G-sharp, which makes it sound very strange and starling-y. It also added a long pause over one of the notes," said Haupt.
"It's really fun to play them side by side and hear how the starling used its own sensibilities to make the music its own,'' she said. "And starlings are known for doing that."
Haupt has no doubt the starling had a profound effect on Mozart.
He wrote music for the bird, composed poems for it and even held a formal funeral for the starling when it died. She knows what a profound effect a starling can have on a household first-hand because Haupt went one step further when researching Mozart's starling: She adopted a starling herself.
"I took it one step too far," said Haupt, laughing. "I learned of a nest that was going to be removed from a local park bathroom, the chicks had already hatched, so I basically grabbed this little bird on the way to the city park dustbin.
"She was sick, covered in mites, wheezing, and I thought she was going to die,'' she said. "I hovered over her and cared for her, and she grew into this healthy, flourishing bird, who really did help me flesh out the story and how it was for Mozart to live with a starling."
Haupt named the bird Carmen, and they still live together. She said the bird's taught the family a lot about music, life and navigating the world together.
When large numbers of starlings fly together it's called a murmuration. They form impossibly complex shapes as thousands of birds fly together in perfect harmony and unison. Until recently, researchers had little clue as to how so many birds flew together without crashing into each other.
"Very recently some researchers in Italy pulled together the mathematics, it has to do with chaos theory and advanced mathematics, but each starling is paying attention to the seven starlings next to it, and that movement scales through the flock rapidly,'' she said.
"I thought that was just marvelous. We're living in a mystifying political time, and so many people are saying what do I do? And I go back to that science of murmurations. I think we all, each of us, have our version of the '7 Starlings' closest to us. Whether it's our family, or co-workers, or co-activists, or whatever it is," said Haupt.
"We can all bring our own gifts with a sense of gratitude, joy and peace and maybe those actions ripple out in ways we could not have imagined."
This story is brought to you with help from the Pohlad Family Foundation.