Why You Can't Teach a Starling to Sing

As they investigate the mysteries behind the surprisingly complex songs that starlings sing, biologists find—more mysteries

04-01-2006 // David Rothenberg

At this time of year the music of birds fills our ears as the sun begins its rise. What does all this sound mean?

IF YOU REALLY WANT to make sense of bird song, you cannot just listen for melodies that humans like. You need to get inside the musical taste of a bird. And no bird offers a better musical subject than one most people think makes god-awful noises—the European starling.

The song of the starling occurs in America only because the eccentric Shakespeare enthusiast Eugene Schieffelin in the 1890s released a hundred-odd of the species into New York City’s Central Park in a quest to introduce into the New World all the birds mentioned in the bard’s work. Barely a century later we’ve got 200 million starlings in America, placing them among our most successful immigrants.

Observers who listen to starlings often notice a rush of gargles and squawks coming from a tree filled with several hundred of them immersed in chatter. But a special music lies hidden there, with a remarkable structure.

A full starling song, which takes about a minute to sing, is composed of four distinct kinds of phrases. First, one or two descending whistles out of a repertoire of two to twelve different kinds. Then a quieter, continuous warbling, in which the starling often inserts imitations of birds living in its territory. The third part of the song is a series of rapid clicks, up to 15 per second, a rattling or ratcheting with no clear breaks between. Finally, the bird concludes with repeated high-pitched squeals.

We have no sure idea why this song, or any other bird song, has so precise a form. Birds sing to defend territories and attract mates, but they often sing outside of nesting season. Scientists Meredith West and Andrew King have raised and studied nine starlings over a period of ten years at the University of Indiana. They let the birds casually share in their daily life in order to hear what the starlings would pick up when left to their own devices.

The five birds that had extensive daily contact with people learned to mimic human sounds, recombining simple phrases in odd ways. “Basic research,” one bird would say. “Basic research, it’s true, I guess that’s right.” Another, held while having its claws treated for an infection, screamed, “I have a question!” In addition to human words, the starlings also mimicked the noise of a refrigerator and the hum of a fluorescent light. One bird often whistled the notes, not the words, of the beginning of Swanee River—“Way down upon the Swa...”—without ever feeling inclined to add “...nee River,” even after hearing the whole phrase practiced hundreds of times on the piano.

Why did West and King’s starlings select certain of the strange noises that underlie our day-to-day human lives? Why didn’t they ever sing “...nee River?” In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin wrote that each bird species has a particular aesthetic sense, leading individual birds to appreciate beautiful plumage and properly sung songs. Darwin’s disciples in evolutionary biology have tended to find that idea unscientific, trying out various theories of natural selection to put some reason behind all this seemingly useless beauty.

Just spend some time listening to starlings, and you will soon realize they do have a unique kind of music, consistent and complex, meant for their ears, not ours. Through eavesdropping on other species, we get closer to the melodies of nature, jarring or smooth. As we bring music back into science, the natural world around us becomes ever more beautiful and mysterious. Perhaps birds sing for the same reason humans do: because that is what they were born to do.

David Rothenberg wrote Why Birds Sing: A Journey into the Mystery of Bird Song (Basic Books). See www.whybirdssing.com for more on this story.

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