Mozart's Starling
by Lyanda Lynn Haupt



Little, Brown, 2017. ISBN 978-0-316-37089-9.
Reviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 06/22/2017

Nonfiction: Creative Life; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment; Nonfiction: Animal Companions; Nonfiction: Memoir

"This book would have taken me half as long to write if it were not for one fact: most of it was composed with a starling perched on my shoulder. Or at least in the vicinity of my shoulder. Sometimes she was standing on top of my head. Sometimes she was nudging the tips of my fingers as they attempted to tap the computer keys. Sometimes she was defoliating the Post-it notes from books where I had carefully placed them to mark passages essential to the chapter I was working on—she would stand there in a cloud of tiny pink and yellow papers with an expression on her intelligent face that I could only read as pleased. ... Sometimes she would look me in the eye and say, Hi, Honey! Clear as day. 'Hi Carmen,' I would whisper back to her."

Carmen, the European starling that Lyanda Lynn Haupt raised as she worked on the book that became Mozart's Starling, inspired Haupt's intellectual explorations just as Star, the starling Mozart bought from a bird-seller in 18th-Century Vienna, may have inspired the composer's music. In probing what Star meant to Mozart, Haupt explores a fascinating array of topics: our relationship with nature, Mozart's music, the nuances in defining good and bad, the nature of speech, raising baby birds, the impulse to introduce non-native species, time and our experience of it, life in Mozart's Vienna, animal behavior, linguistics, the anatomy of the human ear and its impact on hearing, modern Vienna, and of course, Star, the starling who shared Mozart's house and life.

Haupt's unquenchable sense of wonder and curiosity weave a seamless story in these diverse topics with prose that flows like a melody. Mozart's Starling is a compelling read, an eye-opening look at humans and the nature of life itself, through the lens of one charming and clearly intelligent bird. A bird most nature-lovers feel quite righteous about despising.

Therein lies the irony at the heart of this endearing and fascinating account. As Haupt points out, she is a birdwatcher and nature writer, someone for whom "starling" is equivalent to all that is hated about invasive species:

"In conservation circles, starlings are easily the most despised birds in all of North America, and with good reason. They are a ubiquitous, nonnative, invasive species that feasts insatiably upon agricultural crops, invades sensitive habitats, outcompetes native birds for food and nest sites, and creates way too much poop. Millions of starlings have spread across the continent since they were introduced from England into New York's Central Park one hundred and thirty years ago. ... Ecologically, their presence here lies on a scale somewhere between highly unfortunate and utterly disastrous."

And yet. As Haupt shows in Mozart's Starling, nothing is simple. When we look beyond the rhetoric, and suspend our prejudices, we find that even those we feel righteous about condemning have much to offer. That reminder is especially important right now, something Haupt could not have known when she was seized by the idea of writing what became this startlingly timely book.


Lynda Lynn Haupt is an eco philosopher, naturalist, and author of several books, including The Urban Bestiary, Crow Planet, Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent, and Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds. A winner of the Washington State Book Award and the Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award, she lives in Seattle with her husband and daughter.

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