Monday, February 18, 2013

Starlings and the Shakespeare Connection

European starlings were introduced to North America in New York. The American Acclimatization Society(!?) decided all the birds mentioned in the works of Shakespeare should live here. After 125 birds were introduced in 1890-91, they became what is now an invasive or borderline invasive species. A relative of the starling, the Crested Myna was brought to Vancouver by early Chinese migrant workers. At one time, people worried they would grow to troublesome numbers, but apparently the starlings took advantage of the skittish parenting skills of the mynahs and had the habit of taking over their nests.
I have just finished the book (The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik) that inspired the movie The Big Year, and the author describes the main character huddling under an underpass in Vancouver looking for the Crested Myna. Sure enough, there's still at least a couple around! Or there was. According to the Birding in British Columbia website "The last two Crested Mynas in Vancouver, BC are thought to have died mid February 2003 marking the end of an era."
And now back to Shakespeare--Here's a paragraph from an article in Scientific American by Steve Mirsky about the Shakespeare's reference to starlings:

The other starting point lies much deeper in the mists of time. In the late 1590s Shakespeare noted the mimicking ability of the starling while writing Henry IV, Part 1. Hotspur is contemplating driving King Henry nuts by having a starling repeat the name of Hotspur’s brother-in-law Mortimer, whom Henry refuses to ransom out of prisoner status. “Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ ” Hotspur whines. (In theater and life, in-laws can often be counted on for dramatic conflict.) Whirrrr.

So if you hear the name "Mortimer"  repeated incessantly throughout my Starling Cloud Choir musical score--now you know why!

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