starling Language Lesson



Found Natural History Museum case, video, wood, paint, glass eyes

18 X 23 X 8 inches

European starlings (sturnus vulgaris)are very gregarious birds. Imported into Central Park in 1890 by a group who wanted to bring all the birds mentioned by shakespeare to the new world, they rapidly established themselves and flourished.

starlings tend to get a bad rap, from farmers to audubon-types. Farmers accuse starlings of eating their crops, while in truth, the bulk of a starling's diet consist of insect pests such as Japanese beetles and cutworms. Bird lovers accuse starlings of taking over other bird's nests, but recent studies show that starlings have little impact on native bird populations.starling populations are declining just as other bird populations are, for many of the same reasons; destruction of habitat, pesticides, and pollution.

starlings are incredible singers. Male starlings accumulate add hundreds of songs over a lifetime. They are incredible mimics, adding other species of birdsongs to their own repitoire, along with human voice, mechanical sounds and other animal noises. A new study shows that starlings can recognize complex patterns in songs that are artificially built by researchers, similar to the way humans interpret phrases, or syntax. Click here to go to a site that has sound files of starlings speaking english, and mimicing household sounds.

We have starlings that nest in the eaves of our greenhouse. They bathe in the dog's waterbowl, and sing in the mornings and at dusk. A few years ago, I started mimicking them, singing along and answering back. They return my simple calls, and sometimes act like I have a bad accent when I try more complex patterns.

The video depicts my translation of starling language, from simple phrases-"You're pretty", to a long song that I translate as a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, "You, you only exist". One section that shows distress ("snake's eating the baby! snake's eating the baby!) refers to an event that actually happened in the greenhouse last spring.


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2007 Erika Wanenmacher