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Mozart’s Starling



Starling stare, originally uploaded by Suzanne takes you down.


Now for my favorite historical animal story.

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.

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Washington’s Critters, Part 2

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?

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Can Orangutan Blogs Be Far Behind?

Thoughtful Orangutan

When I was working on a project to design and install educational computer kiosks in an art museum, I met a person who was working on a similar project. We traded war stories about how hard it was to get users to understand what to do with the early, pre-Web touchscreens that we were designing. My woes were nothing compared to those of my colleague–his users were orangutans at the National Zoo!

The initial installation didn’t go as anticipated. The minute the orangutan saw the new computer, he went up to it, lifted it–though it was bolted down–and carried it over his head triumphantly. NOT the expected behavior! It turned out that territoriality was the culprit. The ape did not like people imposing changes in his space.

Eventually, the team decided to make it possible for the orangs to opt for computer learning. They devised a transportation system of ropes that the apes could use to get from their living space to the learning center. They call it the “O Line”.

Success! Exciting results have shown that orangs are as capable of linguistic learning as any of the apes. Now scientists are hoping that at some point, people and orangs will be able to have two-way conversations via computers.

Who knows? Maybe some day an orangutan will comment on my blog!

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Animal Ambassadors

Oscar the Hospice Cat

This week the story of Oscar the Cat has fascinated the world. This cat is documented to be able to predict imminent death in patients. Oscar lives at an advanced dementia hospital ward, making rounds like the rest of the staff. When a patient is within an hour or so of death, he jumps up on the bed and curls up, purring. At this point the staff jumps into action, calling relatives and clergy. Oscar stays with his charge until the end.

Many people have witnessed such behavior in cats. It happened to a friend of mine when her mother died. The resident hospital cat did exactly what Oscar does.

And when my best friend died and I was distraught, a beautiful silver cat appeared on my patio that night. She gazed at me in such an intent way that I knew she was there as my friend’s ambassador. She stayed with me all that night, left in the morning, and returned the second evening. I felt a direct line somehow to my departed friend. I never saw the cat again, but I knew it had other missions to fulfill now that I was calmer.

Do you have a similar animal ambassador story? Do share! Let us celebrate our marvelous critter friends!

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Damn Yankees: Squirrel Division

A British Red Squirrel

While I was living in London, I began to notice the prevailing opinion that the American gray squirrel was responsible for the shrinking population of native English squirrels. There were newspaper articles, radio and TV programs, all asserting that some neglectful person brought the American squirrel over, and since then they were edging out the native red squirrels.

Often the new world squirrels would be compared to the British ones as “fat,” “aggressive,” and “gluttons.” Once, an article even said American squirrels were “murdering” the English squirrels!

In other words, as was said of American GI’s during WWII, the American squirrels were “overfed, oversexed, and over here.”

I decided to defend my fellow, uh, countrymen. I went to the local library and checked out every squirrel book it had. Every single one made these same claims. Except for one book, much to my relief. It explained that the reason English squirrels were dying out was that man had felled most of its habitat. It can only eat coniferous nuts (like pine nuts), and these forests had mostly been destroyed in the UK.

Whereas, of course, the American squirrels could eat anything: bagels, chicken, popcorn, you name it. No wonder “we” were taking over! Armed with my research, I went to an anti-American squirrel protest that advocated “execution” of the “murderers.” I discussed my findings. I wrote letters to editors. I was a one-person PR campaign.

Alas, the controversy continues, with the House of Lords debating the need for an “Eat a grey, save a red” campaign. So to my fellow Americans I say this: When you travel in Britain, try to blend in, don’t gorge yourself, and be nice to the natives.

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Dogs’ Tails Tell the Tale

Today’s New York Times reports a study showing that dogs have right- and left-brained asymmetry as do humans and other mammals. Specifically, their left brains are the nurturing, loving, positive-feelings center. The right brain is associated with fear and depression.

And guess what? When a dog sees someone it likes, its tail wags predominately to its right (corresponding to the left brain). And when it encounters a menacing dog, its tail wags to the left (e.g. right brain).

This reminds me of a phenomenon in people’s faces: their expressions are not symmetrical, just as dogs’ tail wags aren’t. Cover up a photo of a person so that only one side of the face appears. Then switch the covered area. You’ll probably notice that the two sides don’t look the same at all. You can prove it also by photoshopping two left sides of faces together, and right sides. Even artists have known this–take a look at any Rembrandt portrait.

Ah, thereupon hangs a tale.