THE ENGLISH MOCKING BIRD
One winter an unusual number of peewits visited the flats near Wittenham and Burcote, and remained there for several months. One or two starlings which haunted the house in which we stayed, and slept in their old holes in the thatch, picked up all the various peewits' calls and notes, and used to amuse themselves by repeating these in the apple-trees on sunny mornings. The note was so exact a reproduction that I often looked up to see where the plover was before I made out that it was only the starling's mimicry.
A correspondent of the Newcastle Journal, writing from Yeare, near Wooler, in Northumberland, recently described the performances of a wild starling which has settled near his house. It is such an excellent mimic of other birds' notes that no one can help noticing its performances. A record has been kept of the variety entertainments provided by the bird. Besides its own calls, whistles, and song, it reproduces the song of the blackbird and thrush absolutely correctly, and mimics with equal nicety the calls of the curlew, the corncrake, and the jackdaw.
It is appropriate that this eulogy of the starling should appear in a Newcastle paper, for Bewick when residing there always regretted the absence of these birds from the town, and hoped that they might in time become numerous, as in the South and West. Starlings are such intelligent, interesting, and really remarkable birds that if they were rare they would be among the most prized of pets. Their open-air vocal performances are quite as remarkable as their latest admirer says. They are the British mocking-birds, able, when and if they choose, to reproduce almost any form of song. They do this partly, no doubt, because their throats are adaptable, but more from temperament and a kind of objective mind not very common in birds. Like parrots, starlings are given to spending a good deal of every fine morning in contemplating other people, including other birds, and then in thinking them over, or talking them over to themselves. Any one who is sitting or working quietly near a room where a parrot is in its cage alone can fairly follow the train of thought in the parrot's mind. It is evidently recalling episodes or things which form part of its daily mental experiences. It begins by barking like the dog, then remembers the dog's mistress, and tells it to be quiet, as she does. Then it hears the housemaid, and imitates a window-sash being let down, or some phrase it has picked up in the servants' quarters. If it has been lately struck with some new animal noise or unusual sound, it will be heard practising that. Starlings do exactly the same thing. When the sun begins to be hot on any fine day, summer or winter, the cock bird goes up usually alone, to a sunny branch, gable, or chimney, and there indulges in a pleasant reverie, talking aloud all the time. Its own modes of utterance are three. One is a melodious whistle, rather low and soft; another is a curious chattering, into which it introduces as many "clicks" as a Zulu talking his native language; and the third is a short snatch of song, either its own, or one which has become a national anthem or morning hymn common to all starlings, though it may originally have been a "selection" from other birds' notes. Then, or amongst the rest of the ordinary notes, the starling inserts or practises its accomplishments. Not all starlings do this, and only a few attain great eminence in that line. Obviously it is only personal feeling that induces them to do it, and they get no encouragement from other starlings, though when kept in cages, as they very seldom are now, and rewarded and taught, they might develop the most striking talents. It should be added that, like all good bird-mimics, they are ventriloquists. They can reproduce perfectly the sound of another bird's note, not as that bird utters it, but as it is heard, faint and low, softened by distance. They can also sing over bars of bird-songs in a low tone perfectly correctly, and repeat them in a high one.
To give a rather striking example. Last spring the writer was in the Valley of the Eden, opposite Eden-hall. The vale is a wide one, and on the north-east side are high fells, Cross Fell among others. On these the curlews breed, and occasionally fly right over the valley at a great height to the hills above Edenhall, uttering their long, musical call. When heard, this call is generally uttered several hundred feet above the valley. A curlew was heard flying above, and repeating its cry, but was not discernible. Again the call was heard, but no curlew seen, though such a large bird must have been visible. In the line of sound was a starling sitting on a chimney-pot. Again the curlew called, the long-drawn notes sounding from exactly the same place in the sky. It was the starling, reproducing with perfect accuracy the call, as it was used to hear it from the high-flying curlews crossing the valley. Apparently the tradition that they were good talkers has died out in rural England. It was always one of the firm beliefs of East Anglia that if a starling's tongue were slit with a thin sixpence it would learn to talk at once, but that otherwise it would only mimic other birds. The operation, like most other traditional brutalities, was absolutely unnecessary. Talking starlings were common enough, and must have been for many years previous to the time when they were no longer valued as cage-birds. Has not Sterne in his "Sentimental Journey" immortalised the poor bird whose one and leading sentiment, had he been able to find words for it, was "I can't get out! I can't get out!"?
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