These days it is totally illegal to keep wild birds as pets as this is in contravention of the Protection of Birds Act of 1954 and what’s more, under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, there is a potential fine of up to £5,000, and or six months imprisonment.
Until we realised that we had made a mess of the natural biodiversity of the world and started getting precious about birds and wildlife it wasn’t unusual at all to keep wild birds as caged pets and of the most famous pet birds of all was a starling that belonged to the famous composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
The story goes that he had just been writing a new piano concerto and feeling rather pleased with himself he went out for as walk and was whistling his catchy little tune as he passed through the city of Vienna.
As he went by a pet shop he heard his new masterpiece being whistled back, which must have surprised him somewhat because it hadn’t yet been finished or published. As he tried to find the source of the whistling he apparently looked up at a bird cage outside a pet shop and in it was a starling mimicking the composer perfectly and joining him in a duet rendition of his new work.
Now this does seem rather far-fetched and might be hard to believe but I have discovered an interesting fact.
The starling is in fact a relation of the Myna Bird, which is well known for its ability to mimic. The starling too is accomplished at copying other birds and other quite complex sounds, so perhaps it isn’t so unbelievable after all.
William Shakespeare knew that Starlings are accomplished mimics and in Henry IV Part I Hotspur is in rebellion against the King and is thinking of ways to torment him. In Act 1 Scene III he fantasises about teaching a starling to say “Mortimer” – one of the king’s enemies.
“Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer, and give it to him to keep his anger still in motion”.
When I was at school I used to have a friend called Roderick Bull (really) who had a pet myna bird who lived in a cage in the hall of his house and who was trained to scream ’Bugger off’ (or something similar) whenever the doorbell rang.
Anyway, to go with the story, Mozart was so impressed that he immediately purchased the bird and went home with his new pet starling. Apparently (and quite frankly this is a bit hard to believe) the bird assisted him in making some final improvements to the concerto and thereafter its party piece was to sing the beginning of the last movement of the piano concerto K453 in G major.
The bird and composer remained close friends for three years but eventually the bird died and the grief-stricken composer had to compose his own music again without avian assistance. After the bird’s death, Mozart gave him a first-class funeral and wrote a poem as his eulogy.
Mozart it seems was rather fond of wild birds, this is a portrait of him, aged eight with a bird’s nest ( I know it looks like a pork pie), by the artist Johann Zoffany.