A LINGUISTIC KAZOOISTRY: THE EUROPEAN STARLING AS UNLIKELY TEACHER
The sun sinks low behind a backdrop of shotgun-style row houses in a less than glamorous neighborhood in old New Orleans. The sky is pink bleeding to blue; dusk arranges itself with slow purpose, like a dog before a fireplace. Without warning, the gathering gloom is interrupted by the sound of a car alarm just outside my front window.
Strange, there are no cars in sight. Most of my neighbors take the bus to their jobs downtown or in mid-city.
ANH! ANH! ANH! ANH!
WEE-ooh! WEE-ooh! WEE-ooh!
Honk! Honk! Honk! Honk!
Over and over, those of us home early on a weekday hear the alarm sound as we prepare supper. Yet, when I open my door to investigate the alarm stops, mid-pattern. After I go back inside, it starts up again, this time a bit further down the block.
It isn't a phantom sedan, haunting my Tchopitoulas-Napoleon Street neighborhood, but a small black and white speckled bird. And he is likely using his alarm song to attract a mate. Like me, she will be attracted to the creative type and his mastery of this particular bit of mimicry will set him apart from all the rest of the locals. He will add this new phrase to his playlist, throw in some stolen bird songs, maybe a few environmental noises he's picked up around the block, and from these sounds he will create a unique song—an avian mix tape. His perfect partner will pick him out from the crowd and ever after know him from all the rest by this song, which to the human inhabitants of the neighborhood identifies him as one of North America's most hated birds: the European Starling.
It was a well-meaning, but short-sighted Shakespeare enthusiast, Eugene Schieffelin, who introduced 60 starlings to Central Park back in 1890. His goal, it is rumored, was to bring all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare's works to the United States. While skylarks, nightingales, bullfinches, and chaffinches failed to thrive in the New World, the glossy, iridescent starlings found our habitats very hospitable. Those first visitors (and a second batch of around 40 more he brought the next year) have blossomed into an estimated 200 million birds, their range extending from one coast to the other. Birders find them nesting as far north as Alaska and Canada and as far south as coastal Mexico and the Lesser Antilles.
Starlings are related by taxonomy to mynas and mockingbirds, and like their relatives, they are mimics. They have a very large and well-developed forebrain for their size and its primary use is for learning "songs". A starling will pick and choose from all types of environmental noises to add to his song. They have been overheard imitating—in addition to any bird or other animal in proximity—gun shots, power windows, cell phone ring tones, screeching tires, teapot whistles, and human speech.
Despite the flattery, most Americans hate them. Gassed by wildlife services, poisoned by birders, and tormented and trapped by anyone whose (mis)fortune it is to live near one of their substantial and communicative roosts—starlings are under appreciated in America by all but a few scientists who suspect they can contribute more than any other animal to our understanding of how human language evolves. It is possible that this bird outside my window has something to say to my neighbors and I about the very things that make us human.
New studies in biology and communication are beginning to challenge the long held belief that the way human beings learn and use language is unique. It turns out that several starling test subjects have learned abstract syntax structures, not unlike the way children learn that sentences are built from words.
Daniel Margoliash, a biologist, and Howard Nusbaum, a psychologist, both at the University of Chicago, proposed in the December 2009 issue of Trends in Cognitive Sciences that their birds were able to learn and then apply a complex form of grammar. This is amazing news, akin to teaching a primate sign language or proving that elephants never forget; but it has so far failed to send tremors through the hallowed halls of linguistics, cognitive learning, and biology departments around the globe. Is it because the scientists have spent the last three years testing their birds on "recursive, center-embedded grammars"—which is a literal and figurative mouthful—or because the birds in question are so maligned? While the world loves a horse counting out math sums with its hoof, or a dog that can bark "I love you," a starling seems to remain little more than a pest in the public eye, even as it sings Mozart.
The starlings in the Margoliash and Nusbaum study did not sing Mozart or Liszt or any other composer. They were not encouraged to sing at all, just listen. The researchers first trained the birds to respond to certain starling "phrases" (each, an artificial bird song made of a specific pattern of rattles and warbles): they got food when they pushed a button with their beaks after hearing a certain phrase and they got food when they ignored a different phrase. The researchers then created new songs that followed the same pattern as the first two phrases. The birds more often than not identified the patterned (or, grammatically correct) strings over random connections.
In the final phase of the study, the researchers modified the phrases to make them more complex—a human example might be taking the phrase "I went to the store" and changing it to "I went gallantly and with purpose to the store"—and the birds still responded to the correct phrases. They were able to learn a bit of grammar, and then extrapolate based on that knowledge, a task that Chomskian linguists have long considered the realm of humans alone.
While the birds performed well, some would argue that it was still little more than performance. Many different animals, from chimpanzees and dolphins to rats and budgies have shown abilities to communicate with scientists in order to get fed. They jump through the hoops, ring the bells, and learn complex patterns of behavior in order to survive the inconstant laboratory ecosystem. But it is still unclear whether an untrained bird would follow rules of grammar. Did Nusbaum and Margoliash discover an avian Rosetta Stone or a flock of bird-brained Eliza Doolittles?
Years after I moved away from the notorious "Whack Bird," as my New Orleans neighbors were fond of calling our alarming friend, I was lucky enough to relocate near one of Montgomery County, Maryland's more dramatic winter starling roosts. Thousands of starlings would descend upon the same three or four trees every night, starting in November. If startled, they rose in a great, winged cloud and swooped around a nearby parking lot, like cartoon bees, as one rounded cloud of feathers and caws. I had never seen such a large flock of birds before, and had no idea they were common. In Denmark, the giant spring and fall flocks (also known as murmurations) of European Starlings are called sort sol, or black sun, for the ability of their large numbers to darken the sky. In winter, small crowds gather near English peat marshes on the Welsh border to watch the dramatic murmurations of starlings. The flocks there can number anywhere from 5,000 to over a million birds. The spectacular sight of these mega-swarms swooping and diving in concert is considered one of nature's most amazing phenomena. In Maryland, and most other states in which it occurs, the same activity is considered a nuisance, a health hazard, and a destructive force of nature.
To be sure, they are loud. And they stink. My walk to work takes me right under their trees. Some mornings, the sidewalk is so crusted in frozen-over droppings as to be too dangerous to risk. I walk in the road and carry an umbrella, just in case any late risers are around. They start to gather back on these same trees each afternoon. Small groups of birds trickle in from wherever they have spent the day foraging and by dusk the numbers are substantial. The racket is deafening. Every bird sound imaginable, it seems, in a swirling dark cloud that settles thick as a wool blanket in just a few trees one moment, then rises all in one movement the next. By the time the street lights have winked on, the birds are tucked in for the evening. A few strays will continue to trickle in all through the night, but they will be relegated to the outer and less desirable trees.
As the birds settle, their din changes from a roar to their infamous murmur. It is eerie walking past them in the dark after a late night at the office. They croak like crows, creak like wooden doors, and sometimes seem to even mumble like old men or water over rocks. I think I hear the whoosh of a city bus's hydraulic brake release, but the closest bus stop is at the Metro station several blocks away. A cat's meow, a bell ringing, and a clicking that could be a typewriter or a card in bicycle spokes all drift down like a Dadaist rain of sound. The noises are not bird-like. I hear a country store, a strip mall parking lot, a subway stop.
On a day trip, a naturalist at the nearby Croyden Creek Nature Center dismisses most of my questions about the local starlings while we head out to look for more majestic snow geese, migrating south. The winter roosts, she says, are just a way for the birds to communicate with each other about the best food sources. I imagine that they are describing the places they visited that day with their crazy mimicry.
"The place with whooshing and honking, near the bell sound, has several open dumpsters, often full of bread."
"A field with many frogs near a river that falls over some rocks is ripe with crickets."
Maybe they are exchanging more complex information. Maybe less.
The researchers in Chicago found out a great deal about a starling's ability to identify grammar, but very little about their actual interest in it. The average starling has a huge repertoire of copied sounds in its song. They seem to select sounds with purpose and string them together with precision. But does it seem that way because that method of communication is familiar to us? When they mimic the voices of the objects and animals around them, they could be aping sounds as a physiological response to stimuli, a mere reflex action. Or is it possible that there is a greater context to their mimicry?
Starlings are nothing if not social. Every part of their life cycle occurs in the context of other birds—vast numbers of other birds. Almost twenty years ago, two different scientists, Meredith West and Andrew King, attempted to discover more about why starlings mimic. The two, like Nusbaum and Margoliash, also specialize in biology and psychology. West and King, a married couple, run the large Animal Behavior Farm outside of Bloomington, Indiana. Graduate and doctoral studies at "The Farm" are focused on behavior, and how individual birds and bird societies interact with each other to control territory, mate, and nurture young.
In 1990, West and King published "Mozart’s Starling," a paper on starling socialization, in the spring issue of American Scientist. They retold the story of how the great composer came to buy his beloved pet after finding it in a pet shop singing one of his own, as-yet-unpublished compositions. Mozart was fond of birds, and it is probable that this particular starling heard Mozart whistling the tune himself on a previous visit to the shop, and picked up a part of the refrain. History records that Wolfgang was quite taken with the feathered charmer and kept the bird until its death, three years later. He held a funeral for the bird, complete with pallbearers, and recited a poetic eulogy. West and King (as well as some musical historians) believe that one of his scores, called A Musical Joke, may have been inspired by starling song. There is no mention of Mozart’s bird ever mimicking human speech, but they can, and if raised with humans, often do. The Indiana professors wanted to know why the birds choose to copy the sounds they do, and what the mimicry could be trying to communicate.
The couple placed seven pairs of starlings into the homes of research assistants. The assistants were given instructions on how much or how little to interact with their birds. All seven pairs of birds could get food, shelter, and water on their own; they did not rely on the assistants. In one home, the birds were in a cage on the front porch with a cowbird. People came and went, but did not interact with the birds. In another home the cage was placed in the busiest part of the house, with the birds allowed to interact with all household members—including flying into showers and sitting on a shoulder while someone spoke on the phone.
The findings were straightforward on the surface: the more interaction, the more imitation. The birds on the porch copied the cowbird, not the humans. The birds with the most interaction "spoke" the most, sometimes stringing together phrases such as, "Basic research, it’s true. I guess that’s right." Some of the words mimicked were heard over and over, like ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye;’ while others were picked up after one utterance: one bird would incorporate the phrase "Does Hammacher Schlemmer have a toll free number?" into his longer rambling, and otherwise bird-like, song. The research assistant was sure she’d said that only once.
The birds seemed interested in terms or sounds of endearment such as kissing noises. Yet, it was rare that they "spoke back" when someone talked to them. The words they used were either woven into longer songs—which also included other bird songs, tunes they had heard the researchers whistling, and environmental noises—that they sung to themselves or the room at large, or used when events occurred. One bird, at the home of a sports fan, would fly into the living room and squawk "Defense!" when the television was turned on; another bird would whistle (like a teapot) whenever the researcher put tea on the stove. As the assistants would get ready to leave the house, gathering their keys or putting on jackets, the birds in the most interactive homes would say "good bye" or "we’ll see you later."
West and King hypothesized that the birds were using their mimicry as a form of "social sonar." They would mirror sounds and gauge the social response they received in return. The mimicry of human speech and whistled songs would endear the birds to the people they lived with: in the same way that a human child learns he will get approval for saying "mama," the birds seemed to often mimic words that would contribute to bonding. One bird, when she received treatment for a condition on one of her feet (which required that she be held), would screech, "I have a question!" It is not too difficult to imagine that she was using language to implore, even if it feels a bit assumptive to do so.
Unlike human children, the birds never seemed to be learning language for the purpose of two-way communication. When children mimic, it is the beginning of a longer process. They first want approval and care, later to express their own needs and assert their individuality. René Girard, world renowned philosopher and social scientist, holds that the idea of mimesis, or imitating the desires of another, is the foundation of all human language, culture, and theology. He believes that we learn not just how to behave by mimicry but also what to desire. A child mimics her mother saying "mama" over and over so that she will be held and cuddled. Later, she "learns" to want a family of her own as well as all of the other trappings of social success. As humans possessing this tradition of imitation, it is understandable that an animal like the starling could affect and endear itself to us.
I have spent the last year in the desert, where the starlings are fewer and farther between. The flocks out here don't get much bigger than a couple hundred birds, a fact that contributes to many local's incuriosity toward them. While ornithologists in Europe take comfort in our burgeoning population of the Sturnus vulgaris as their own numbers decline, most birders stateside would just as soon be without them. It is a shame, since it seems we have just brushed the surface of all that we can learn about how starlings interact with each other and their environments.
They share our habitats and learn in some of the same ways we do, which is to blame for their status as nuisance. They learn faster than other birds that our attempts to scare them away from food sources are transitive and often harmless. Scarecrows, recorded sounds and mylar balloons have failed to deter them much. Many livestock owners in the Midwest US, where starlings are particulars populous, have resorted to poison to protect their feed supplies. While biologists on the West Coast try to convince birders that European Starlings as a prey animal are helping bring back certain rare peregrines, those on the East Coast would have us believe they are running off Purple Martins by stealing their nests. Few studies have documented either phenomena but the rumors persist.
The avian reveler in New Orleans may have been singing his alarm song to find a mate or for more subtle reasons, I will never know. Starlings have a lot to say, much like humans, and yet, we still know very little about how or why they communicate the things they do. Their echoes hint at more than mindless chatter, but the fickle nature of their performances confounds those who would translate their meanings. They can teach us much about how language evolves, yet it seems that their unwillingness to "befriend" human beings, as dogs and dolphins do, keeps us from appreciating their potential. They have some understanding of a social circle: if humans are within it, they speak to us, but if we are just extras on the stage—background noise—we escape their interest. This too, seems an eerily human trait. As I search the sidewalk mesquite trees for their familiar silhouette, the starlings remain indifferent to my interest. Like a mirror of noise, they reflect our influence, even as they maintain their distance from it. In their calls I hear clanging, clicking, tapping, dogs growling, and pigeon purrs: the sounds of a city made by man.
Here is a great video of starling murmurations in Rome: [link]; a video of Liberty, the official greeter at Red Creek Wildlife Center (who coughs, asks for a donation, and lets visitors know he's invasive): [link]; and Drs. West and King's site for the Animal Behavior Farm: [link]