On a cloudy late March afternoon, they landed on my deck’s railing, seven of them to be exact. (Yes, I counted). I had never seen anything so striking, so stunning, birds bejeweled, fitting for an Egyptian pharaoh’s throne.
What I had seen was the European Starling, introduced to America in 1890 when 60 birds were released into New York’s Central Park. A group of romantics wanted America to have every bird mentioned by Shakespeare exist in the country. Since then, starlings have become one of North America’s most disdained invasive bird species. Called the destroyer of bird feeders, a bane to agriculture, the noise they make, and all that “guano” is the short list of grievances against them. The starlings visiting my deck that afternoon were perfect guests and did not overstay their welcome. So much for a bad reputation.
Because of my reaction to seeing starlings for the first time up close, I wanted to incorporate them into my work but was not sure how to approach the subject. Digging a bit deeper into all things starlings, I came across “a story about Mozart’s starling.” Yes, that Mozart. Thanks to author Lyanda Lynn Haupt and her following the story all the way to Salzburg, she writes about Mozart and his muse in her book Mozart’s Starling.
On May 27, 1784, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart adopted a coy little starling he found in the market. To Mozart’s surprise, the starling sang to him the theme from his Piano Concerto Number 17 in G from the shop window. After paying a few kreuzers for it, Mozart brought the bird home.
Starlings are excellent mimics and quite vocal but they can also add their own adaptations and alternatives as Mozart discovered when he would play for the bird. He kept notes on the bird’s iterations while working on his compositions. Indeed, Mozart loved his starling, so much so, that there was a formal funeral held for the bird at its passing.
While conservationists, naturalists, and the average birder regard the starling as a bona fide pest, starlings give us murmurations, the most mesmerizing flight display known in birds. They form impossible complex shapes as thousands of starlings fly together in perfect harmony and unison. How can so many starlings fly together without crashing into one another? This is a question that has puzzled researchers until recently.
As it happened researchers in Italy worked out the math, which has to do with chaos theory and advanced mathematics (I’m thinking algorithms). They concluded that each starling is paying attention to only the seven starlings next to it and no more but as a movement, this scales rapidly through the flock.
It’s a bit like a metaphor for our lives. Each of us has some version of “seven starlings,” the closest people around us we tend to on a daily basis — our family, co-workers, and neighbors. It’s challenging to fit more people into this circle and give them our full attention.
I had a few large sheets of Mulberry paper stored away that I had been wanting to find a suitable subject using pen and ink. (Mulberry paper is notoriously delicate, like tissue. It does not take erasers well but takes well to archival ink pens). Starlings with their feather patterns would make an interesting subject now that I learned these things about them. (I do love birds, by the way). I drew the starlings first, seven of them, creating a pattern with each bird’s placement and orientation. Knowing the piece wasn’t finished, I set it aside until I could figure out what should come next.
I began to think about a botanical counterpart to the European Starling, an immigrant we disdain as much, the dandelion. The story of the dandelion’s arrival to North America is founded on immigration or you could say it’s one of the many effects of colonization has on a place. People brought the plant with them for both nutrition and medical purposes and during the 17th century, dandelions were heavily used for both food and to treat ailments.
More than that, the dandelion brought a familiarity to the early colonists’ new home, this strange new land so far from where they came. Since its introduction to North America, the dandelion has “colonized” the rest of the world. A good friend of mine told me about a conversation she had with a young Afghani woman who immigrated to Minnesota. She said they have the dandelion growing in her home country, too. Children take its characteristic seed puff ball, then blow, making a wish as the seeds float into the wind just as children do here in America.
I kept thinking about patterns found in nature, birds, flowers, leaves, and then, boom! I landed on William Morris or his art form, that is. Channeling the master artisan of wallpaper design and many other things that brings beauty into domestic life, I drew a winding curved branch around the starlings to represent their murmurations. From there, I worked on a pattern of dandelion flowers, their leaves, spent blooms, and flowers ready to bud open.
Seven Starlings is by far the most conceptual piece I have made to date. I believe in the strength of a series (or a collection) of pieces that all work together and would like to do more like this piece. I have Mulberry paper ready to go and I know where to buy more. But I might have to wait until nature takes my breath away as she did that cloudy late March afternoon.
POST SCRIPT: Many of the species of plants and animals we have in North America have arrived through the process of colonization. No non-native bird, animal, or plant came to invade of their own volition. I keep this in mind. How can I pass judgment when they have committed no crime?