In 1784 the composer Wolfgang Mozart visited a pet shop, where he heard a starling sing of song of 17 notes.
Mozart immediately bought the bird, and for the next three years the two were constant companions.
The starling would sit on Mozart’s shoulder while the composer would create his scores. Many researchers have surmised that the bird would naturally have mimicked the music. But starlings subvert what they hear, abruptly halting a song in the middle, mixing up tunes and syntax in a way that must have amused Mozart to no end.
When his beloved starling died, Mozart was inconsolable. He staged a full funeral and burial, complete with priests, and wrote a poem dedicated to his feathered friend.
Six days later, he composed “A Musical Joke” (“Ein Musikalischer Spass”). With its humorous and unorthodox musical grammar, many believe that Mozart was honoring his departed pet. And two days after that, he made a change to the finale of a concerto (K 453) he was writing.
He added the starling’s 17 notes that began their friendship.
When I was a teenager, the neighbors’ dachshund came to visit every day. Snoopy treated our place as if it was home, and he would often stay with us overnight.
He especially liked it when I would scratch him under the chin, then behind his ears, under the collar, down his spine, under his front legs, etc. I could make him go to sleep by doing this routine, and I loved it when he would start snoring and dreaming.
Eventually I went to university and moved away. Years later, I visited Snoopy’s family. He recognized me immediately, and we had a joyous reunion. But he was old and arthritic. His poor body was creaky and probably in pain. His face was white.
He lay on my lap, like old times. Then I started our little scratching routine, which took several minutes. Suddenly, Snoopy let out an uneartlhy sound which startled everyone in the room.
Had it come from a human it could not have been more eloquent. It said: “I remember you! I missed you all these years! You understand me! I used to be young, and now I’m old. Don’t leave me!”
But I had to leave. It was the last time I ever saw him.
If only I could pet him now, it would be I who told him: “I remember you! I missed you all these years! You understand me! I used to be young, and now I’m old. Don’t leave me!”
In yet another shocking development, Sam, a seagull, is causing a one-bird crime wave in Scotland. Every day he sneaks into a shop and steals a bag of cheese Doritos.
I know from experience how devious seagulls can be. Once I was outside, eating some french fries and gesticulating with a fry. Suddenly a seagull swept down and grabbed it out of my hand, leaving me speechless and my friend howling with laughter.
Once I had to move out of my apartment for two months while steam pipes were replaced. I worried about what would happen to the squirrels. They were used to my feeding them fresh peanuts every morning. I wouldn’t be there for them–and it was winter.
When construction workers arrived on the first day, I told them my concerns. It didn’t help that they guffawed at me. “Don’t worry. We’ll just shoot ’em!” One even said “I like squirrels–in a frying pan!” These were tough, macho guys, after all.
The construction site was off limits, but every day I would come by and throw peanuts over the fence into my garden so the squirrels would have something. Did they miss me as much as I missed them, I wondered?
Toward the end of the project, I was allowed back in to see the work in progress. When I walked into my apartment, what did I see but one of those tough construction workers out in the garden, feeding some of his sandwich to a squirrel!
The foreman told me that every day the squirrels would look for me. And one day, one of them went up to the window and kind of put her arms on her hips and seemed to ask “Where IS she?”
So in the end, these little creatures managed to win over the entire crew, once again proving the importance of good P.R.!
All those times you thought you were going crazy, when you misplaced something and never could figure out where it was! Remember how I inexplicably lost a juggling ball? Judging from the above video, this kind of thing happens more than we know.
Another example: A neighbor of mine was the proud new owner of a fancy bird feeder. I helped her install it securely on her fire escape, three floors up. From her kitchen window, she loved watching the birds feasting.
Then one day the feeder was gone–vanished! She called me and I commiserated. What kind of a person would steal a bird feeder? How low can you get?
A few days later I spotted the birdfeeder, empty and lying on the ground. Aha! So no human had stolen it after all–enterprising squirrels had managed to haul the entire thing away, dragging it off to their secret hiding place!
From my vantage point at work I had a majestic head-on view of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Towards sunset in winters I could always count on hundreds of starlings congregating onto one single tree nearby.
It would start with just a few alighting. Then several more would join the group. Eventually there would be hundreds of squeeling, exuberant birds blackening the tree and making a huge racket of whistles, clucks, and songs.
I wondered what they were doing, and why they always picked that particular tree. I found out that in the winter starlings nest together for warmth and to avoid predators picking them off one by one as they return home at night. Once they are all present and accounted for, they fly off to their nest together. Safety in numbers, it would seem.
But this ritual is also a sort of happy hour, where they share stories of their day’s adventures. And they observe one another’s degree of confidence or dejection as they fly to the tree, much as we would as we see people arriving at a bar. Swagger is a sign that a bird found a good food source. The next morning, observant starlings will follow that successful bird!
The miraculous flocking behavior captured on the video above is another order of magnitude altogether–whatever can be the explanation for these bird fireworks?
Official Washington, DC, is a grand city with sweeping avenues for motorcades and parades, and white marble government buildings for the most serious affairs of state.
But if you take time to look, you’ll see that our little animal friends go on with their busy lives among all this pomp and circumstance. On Pennsylvania Avenue, exactly where I waved to a president going by in his motorcade, I saw a squirrel emerging from a trash container. Oblivious to the importance going on around her, she had a big, fat bagel in her mouth–her triumph of the day.
My office used to be on the ground floor of the National Gallery of Art. I was lucky because it was the former office of the director, so it had a beautiful huge window that looked out over a hidden, shaded glade.
One day I was on the phone when I saw a squirrel with an entire, huge fried chicken breast, complete with wing, in his mouth. Oblivious to my watchful eyes, it proceeded to hide the chicken in the corner of my window, using leaves to cover the prize.
When I came to work the next day, the chicken breast was gone.
Isn’t it comforting to know that in the backdrop of our nation’s major events–motorcades, funerals, and demonstrations– we can rely on Washington’s squirrels to provide the continuity of Nature?