mimics and songsters
of another mimic, the African gray parrot (Psit-tacus erithacus),
also indicate linkages between mimicry and social interaction (13).
This species mimics human speech when stimulated to do so by an "interactive
modeling technique" in which a parrot must compete for the attention of
two humans engaged in conversation. Extrinsic rewards such as food are
avoided. The reinforcement is physical acquisition of the object being
talked about and responses from human caregivers. Such procedures lead
to articulate imitation and often highly appropriate use of speech sounds.
Pepperberg reports that one bird's earliest "words" referred to objects
he could use: "paper," "wood," "hide" (from rawhide chips), "peg wood,"
"corn," "nut," and "pasta" (14). The parrot also employed these
mimicked sounds during exchanges with caregivers in which he answered
questions about the names of objects and used labels identifying shape
and color in appropriate ways. The parrot's use of "no" and "want" also
suggested the ability to form functional relationships between speech
and context, a capacity perhaps facilitated by the trainer's explicit
attempts to arrange training sessions meaningful for the student.
of mimicry of human sounds in this and other species originate in the
idea that hand-reared birds perceive their human companions in terms of
the social roles that naturally exist among wild birds. Lorenz and von
Uexkull elaborated on the kinds of relationships between and among avian
parents, offspring, siblings, mates, and rivals (25). In the case
of captive birds, humans become the companion for all seasons, with the
nature of the relationship shifting with the changing developmental and
hormonal cycles in a bird's life.
not the only birds to show clear evidence of the effects of companions
on vocal capacities, examples from nonmimetic species are relevant. In
white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), the capacity to
learn the songs of other males differs according to the tutoring procedure
used. For example, young males learn songs from tape recordings until
they are 50 days of age but not afterward. They do acquire songs well
after 50 days from live avian tutors with whom they can interact, copying
the song of another species, even if they can hear conspecifics in the
background. The potency of social tutors has led to a comprehensive reinterpretation
of the nature of vocal ontogeny in this species (16). We tried
tutoring nine of the starlings using tapes of the caregiver's voice singing
songs and reciting prose. There was no evidence of mimicry, except that
one bird learned the sound of tape hiss. And thus, if we had relied on
tape tutoring, as has been done with many species to assess vocal capacity,
we would have vastly underestimated the starlings' skills.
What are the characteristics of live tutors that
make them so effective? The studies of white-crowned
sparrows suggest that it is not the quality of
the tutor's voice, but the opportunity for interaction.
Indeed, we have studied a case where voice could
not be a cue at all because the "tutor" could
not sing. In cowbirds, as in many songbirds, only
males sing. Females are frequently the recipients
of songs and display a finely tuned perceptual
sensitivity to con-specific songs (17).
We have documented that acoustically naive males
produce distinct themes when housed with female
cowbirds possessing different song preferences.
We have also identified one important element
in the interaction. When males sang certain themes,
females responded with distinctive wing movements.
The males responded in turn to such behavior by
repeating the songs that elicited the females'
wing movements. Such data show that singers attend
to visual, as well as acoustic, cues and that
tutors can be salient influences even when silent.
In this species, the social, as distinct from
the vocal, conduct of a male's audience is of
another avian group, domestic fowl (Gallus gallus), also direct
attention to the importance of a signaler's audience (18). In this
species, male cockerels produce different calls in the presence of different
social companions. Emitting a food call in the presence of food is not
an obligatory response but one modulated by the signaler's observations
of his audience. Similar findings with cockerel alarm calls indicate the
need to consider the multiple determinants of vocal production. Taken
as a whole, the findings reveal that, for many birds, acoustic communication
is as much visual as vocal experience.
Mozart knew how to look at, as well as listen
to, audiences, especially when one of his compositions
was the object of their attention. After observing
several audiences watching The Magic Flute,
he wrote to his wife, "I have at this moment returned
from the opera, which was as full as ever. . .
. But what always gives me most pleasure is the
silent approval! You can see how this opera
is becoming more and more esteemed" (19).
Mozart's enjoyment of the less obvious reactions
of his audience suggests that, like a bird, he
too was motivated not only by auditory but by
visual stimuli. The German word he used can be
translated "applause" as well as "approval," suggesting
his search for rewards more meaningful than the
expected clapping of hands. We now turn to the
case of Mozart's starling and to the kinds of
social and vocal rewards offered to him by his
choice of an avian audience.
recorded the purchase of his starling in a diary
of expenses, along with a transcription of a melody
whistled by the bird and a compliment. He had
begun the diary at about the same time that he
began a catalogue of his musical compositions.
The latter effort was more successful, with entries
from 1784 to 1791, the year of his death. His
book of expenditures, however, lapsed within a
year, with later entries devoted to practice writing
in English (20). The theme whistled by
the starling must have fascinated Mozart for several
reasons. The tune was certainly familiar, as it
closely resembles a theme that occurs in the final
movement of the Piano Concerto in G Major, K.
453. Mozart recorded the completion of this work
in his catalogue on 12 April in the same year.
As far as we know, just a few people had heard
the concerto by 27 May, perhaps only the pupil
for whom it was written, who performed it in public
for the first time at a concert on 13 June. Mozart
had expressed deep concern that the score of this
and three other concertos might be stolen by unscrupulous
copyists in Vienna. Thus, he sent the music to
his father in Salzburg, emphasizing that the only
way it could "fall into other hands is by that
kind of cheating" (21). The letter to his
father is dated 26 May 1784, one day before the
entry in his diary about the starling. Mozart's
relationship with the starling thus begins on
a tantalizing note. How did the bird acquire Mozart's
music? Our research suggests that the melody was
certainly within the bird's capabilities, but
how had it been transmitted? Given our observation
that whistled tunes are altered and incorporated
into mixed themes, we assume that the melody was
new to the bird because it was so close a copy
of the original. Thus, we entertain the possibility
that Mozart, like other animal lovers, had already
visited the shop and interacted with the starling
before 27 May. Mozart was known to hum and whistle
a good deal. Why should he refrain in the presence
of a bird that seems to elicit such behavior so
in May would be either quite young, given typical spring hatching times,
or at most a year old, still young enough to acquire new material but
already an accomplished whistler. Because it seems unlikely to us that
a very young bird could imitate a melody so precisely, we envision the
older bird. The theme in question from K. 453 has often been likened to
a German folk tune and may have been similar to other popular tunes already
known to the starling, analogous to the highly familiar tunes our caregivers
used. But to be whistled to by Mozart! Surely the bird would have adopted
its listening posture, thereby rewarding the potential buyer with "silent
whistles were learned quite rapidly by the starlings we studied, it is
not implausible that the Vienna starling could have performed the melody
shortly after hearing it for the first time. Of course, we cannot rule
out a role for a shopkeeper, who could have repeated Mozart's tune from
its creator or from the starling. In any case, we imagine that Mozart
returned to the shop and purchased the bird, recording the expense out
of appreciation for the bird's mimicry. Some biographers suggest an opposite
course of transmission---from the starling to Mozart to the concerto---but
the completion date of K. 453 on 12 April makes this an unlikely, although
not impossible, sequence of events.
sociable nature of the captive starlings we studied, we can imagine that
some of the experiences that followed Mozart's purchase must have been
quite agreeable. Mozart had at least one canary as a child and another
after the death of the starling, suggesting that it would not be hard
for him to become attached to so inventive a house mate. Moreover, he
shared several behavioral characteristics with captive starlings. He was
fond of mocking the music of others, often in quite irreverent ways. He
also kept late hours, composing well into the night (22). The caregivers
of the starlings we studied uniformly reported, and sometimes complained
about, the tendency of their birds to indulge in more than a little night
The text of Mozart's poem on the bird's death
suggests other perceptions shared with the caregivers.
Mozart dubbed his pet a "fool", the German word
could also be translated as "clown" or "jester",
an attribution in keeping with the modern starlings'
vocal productions of "crazy bird," "rascal," "silly
bird," and "nutty bird" and the even more frequent
use of such terms in the written description of
life with starlings. Mozart gets to the heart
of the starling's character when he states that
the bird was "not naughty quite, / But gay and
bright, / And under all his brag, / A foolish
wag." And thus, when we contemplate Mozart's emotions
at the bird's death, we see no reason to invoke
attributions of displaced grief. We regard Mozart's
sense of loss as genuine, his epitaph as an apt
ruht ein lieber Narr,
Noch in den besten ]ahren
Musst er erfahren
Des Todes bittern Schmerz.
Mir blut't das Herz,
Wenn ich daran gedenke.
O Leser! schenke
Auch du ein Thranchen ihm.
Er war nicht schlimm;
Nur war er etwas munter,
Doch auch mitunter
Ein lieber loser Schalk,
Und drum kein Dalk.
Ich wett', er ist schon oben,
Um mich zu loben
Fiir diesen Freundschaftsdienst
Denn wie er unvermuthet
Sich hat verblutet,
Dacht er nicht an den Mann,
Der so schon reimen kann.
4ten ]uni 1787.
fool lies here
Whom I held dear
A starling in the prime
Of his brief time
Whose doom it was to drain
Death's bitter pain.
Thinking of this, my heart
Is riven apart.
Oh reader! Shed a tear,
You also, here.
He was not naughty, quite,
But gay and bright,
And under all his brag
A foolish wag.
This no one can gainsay
And I will lay
That he is now on high,
And from the sky,
Praises me without pay
In his friendly way.
Yet unaware that death
Has choked his breath,
And thoughtless of the one
Whose rime is thus well done.
written records of Mozart's relationship with his pet are known. He may
have said more, given his prolific letter writing, but much of his correspondence
during this period has been lost. The lack of other accounts, however,
cannot be considered to indicate a lack of interest in his starling. We
are inclined to believe that other observations by Mozart on the starling
do exist but have not been recognized as such. Our case rests in part
on recent technical analyses of the original (autograph) scores of Mozart's
compositions, investigations describing changes in handwriting, inks,
and paper. Employing new techniques to date paper by analyzing the watermarks
pressed into it at the time of its manufacture, Tyson (23) has
established that the dates and places assigned to some of Mozart's compositions
can be questioned, reaching the general conclusion that many pieces were
written over an extended period of time and not recorded in his catalogue
until the time of completion. The establishment of an accurate chronology
of Mozart's compositions is obviously essential to those attempting to
understand the development of his musical genius. It also serves our purposes
in reconstructing events after the starling's funeral.
examined by Tyson is a score entered in Mozart's catalogue on 12 June
1787, the first to appear after the deaths of his father and the starling.
The piece is entitled A Musical Joke (K. 522). Consider the following
description of it from a record jacket: "In the first movement we hear
the awkward, unproportioned, and illogical piecing together of uninspired
material. . . [later] the andante cantabile contains a grotesque cadenza
which goes on far too long and pretentiously and ends with a comical deep
pizzicato note . . . and by the concluding presto, our 'amateur composer'
has lost all control of his incongruous mixture" (24). Is the piece
a musical joke? Perhaps. Does it bear the vocal autograph of a starling?
To our ears, yes. The "illogical piecing together" is in keeping with
the starlings' intertwining of whistled tunes. The "awkwardness" could
be due to the starlings' tendencies to whistle off-key or to fracture
musical phrases at unexpected points. The presence of drawn-out, wandering
phrases of uncertain structure also is characteristic of starling soliloquies.
Finally, the abrupt end, as if the instruments had simply ceased to work,
has the signature of starlings written all over it.
Mozart's Starling Page Four