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Starling Talk
Care and Rehabilitation of Injured and
Orphaned Starlings

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Mozart's Starling
Meredith J. West
Andrew P. King

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Social transmission of the spoken word

The starlings' mimetic repertoires varied consistently by social context: only the birds in interactive contact mimicked sounds with a clearly human origin. None of the other subjects imitated such sounds, although all mimicked their cowbird companions, each other, wild birds, and mechanical noises. For the purposes of this article, we have elected to focus solely on the actions of the birds in interactive contact.

All of these birds mimicked human sounds---including clear words, sounds immediately recognizable as speech but largely unintelligible, and whistled versions of songs identified as originating from a human source---and mechanical sounds whose source could be identified within the households. For the three audio taped birds, roughly two-thirds of their vocalizations were related to the words or actions of caregivers. The same categories applied to the remaining five birds, who mimicked speech, whistles, and human-derived or mechanical sounds.

Relationships between starlings and human beings appear to reflect the behavior of birds in the wild. Hand-reared starlings interact with their human compainions in terms of the social roles of wild birds. In particular, they learn by observing vocal and other responses to their own expressive efforts.

Many of the more impressive properties of the starlings' vocal capacities defy simple categorization. The most striking feature was their tendency to mimic connected discourse, imitating phrases rather than single words. Words most often mimicked alone included the birds' names and words associated with humans' arrivals and departures, such as "hi" or "good-bye." All phrases were frequently recombined, sometimes giving the illusion of a different meaning. One bird, for example, frequently repeated, "We'll see you later," and "I'll see you soon." The phrase was often shortened to "We'll see," sounding more like a parental ploy than an abbreviated farewell. Another bird often mimicked the phrase "basic research" but mixed it with other phrases, as in "Basic research, it's true, I guess that's right."

The audiotapes and caregivers' reports made clear, however, that nonsensical combinations (from a human speaker's point of view) were as frequent as seemingly sensible ones: the only difference was that the latter were more memorable and more often repeated to the birds. Sometimes, the speech utterances occurred in highly incongruous settings: the bird mentioned above blasted his owners with "Basic research!" as he struggled frantically with his head caught in string; another screeched, "I have a question!" as she squirmed while being held to have her feet treated for an infection. The tendency for the birds to produce comical or endearing combinations did much to facilitate attention from humans. It was difficult to ignore a bird landing on your shoulder announcing, "Hello," "Give me a kiss," or "I think you're right."

The birds devoted most of their singing time to rambling tunes composed of songs originally sung or whistled to them intermingled with whistles of unknown origin and starling sounds. Rarely did they preserve a melody as it had been presented, even if caregivers repeatedly whistled the "correct" tune. The tendency to sing off-key and to fracture the phrasing of the music at unexpected points (from a human perspective) was reported for seven birds (no information on the eighth). Thus, one bird whistled the notes associated with the words "Way down upon the Swa-," never adding "-nee River," even after thousands of promptings. The phrase was often followed by a whistle of his own creation, then a fragment of 'The Star-spangled Banner," with frequent interpositions of squeaking noises. Another bird whistled the first line of "I've Been Working on the Railroad" quite accurately but then placed unexpectedly large accents on the notes associated with the second line, as if shouting, "All the livelong day!" Yet another routinely linked the energetically paced William Tell Overture to "Rockaby Baby."

One category of whistles escaped improvisation. Seven of the eight caregivers used a so-called contact whistle to call the birds, typically a short theme (e.g., "da da da dum" from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony). This fragment of melody escaped acoustic improvisation in all cases, although the whistles were inserted into other melodies as well. One bird, however, often mimicked her contact whistle several times in succession, with each version louder than the preceding one (perhaps a quite accurate representation of the sound becoming louder as her caregiver approached her).

All the birds in interactive contact showed an interest in whistling and music when it was performed. They often assumed an "attentive" stance, they stood very quietly, arching their necks and moving their heads back and forth. The birds did not vocalize while in this orientation. Records for all eight subjects contained verbal or pictorial reports of the posture.

Clear mimicry of speech was relatively infrequent, due in large part to the birds' tendency to improvise on the sounds, making them less intelligible although definitely still speech like. Other aspects of their speech imitations were also significant. First, the birds would mimic the same phrase, such as "see you soon" or "come here," but with different intonation patterns. At times, the mimetic version sounded like a human speaking in a pleasant tone of voice, and at other times in an irritated tone. Second, when the birds repeated speech sounds, they frequently mimicked the sounds that accompany speaking, including air being inhaled, lips smacking, and throats being cleared. One bird routinely preceded his rendition of "hi" with the sound of a human sniffing, a combination easily traced to his caregiver being allergic to birds. Finally, the quality of the mimicry of the human voice was surprisingly high. Many visitors who heard the mimicry "live" looked for an unseen human. Those listening to tapes asked which sounds were the starlings' and which the humans', when the only voices were the birds'.

The particular phrases that were mimicked varied, although a majority fell into the broad semantic category of socially expressive speech used by humans as greetings or farewells, compliments, or playful responses to children and pets. Several of the starlings used phrases of greeting or farewell when they heard the sound of keys or saw someone putting on a coat or approaching a door. Several mimicked household events such as doors opening and closing, keys rattling, and dishes clinking together. One bird acquired the word "mizu" (Japanese for water), which she routinely used after flying to the kitchen faucet. Another chanted "Defense!" when the television was on, a sound that she apparently had acquired as she observed humans responding to basketball games.

Caregivers reported that it took anywhere from a few days to a few months for new items to appear in the birds' repertoires. Acquisition time may have depended on the kind of material: one of the birds in limited contact, housed with a new cowbird, learned its companion's vocalization in three days, while one bird in interactive contact took 21 days to mimic his cowbird companion. The latter bird, however, repeated verbatim the question, "Does Hammacher Schlemmer have a toll-free number?" a day after hearing it said only once.

Some whistled renditions of human songs also appeared after intervals of only one or two days. An important variable in explaining rate of acquisition and amount of human mimicry may be the birds' differential exposure to other birds. The three birds without avian cage mates appeared to have more extensive repertoires, but they were also older than the other subjects.

The birds did not engage much in mutual vocal exchanges with their caregivers, that is, a vocalization directed to a bird did not bring about an immediate vocal response, although it often elicited bodily orientation and attention. Thus, the mimicry lacked the "conversational" qualities that have been sought after in work with other animals (10). As no systematic attempt had been made to elicit immediate responding by means of food or social rewards, reciprocal exchanges may nevertheless be possible. Ongoing human conversation not involving the starlings, however, was a potent stimulus for simultaneous vocalizing. The birds chattered frequently and excitedly while humans were talking to each other in person or on the telephone. The starlings' lively interest and ability to participate in the activities of their caregivers created an atmosphere of mutual companionship, a condition that may be essential in motivating birds to mimic particular models, as indicated by the findings with the birds in limited and auditory contact. The capacity of starlings to learn the sounds of their neighbors fits with what is known about their learning of starling calls, especially whistles, in nature. They learn new whistles as adults by means of social interactions, an ability that is quite important when they move into new colonies or flocks (11). Analyses of social interactions between wild starling parents and their young also indicate the use, early in ontogeny, of vocal exchanges between parent and young and between siblings (12). Thus, the capacities identified in the mimicry of human speech and their dependence on social context seem relevant to the starling's ecology.