In 1985 a violent spring storm that swept Dallas (Texas) blew a baby bird out of its nest in an oak tree near my home and into my life. I raised this orphaned featherless descendant of the dinosaurs but had no idea what species he belonged to. Not, that is, until he feather up and it became evident he was a European starling. This was thrilling to me because I was aware of the fact that starlings are mimics like Myna birds. With this in mind I began feeding the bird, now named “Calypso,” certain words and whistled fragments of songs along with his mealworms and Myna pellets.
Around the third month after his “adoption” Calypso began whistling “Beethoven’s Fifth” and proclaiming, “I’m Calypso, I’m a big baby boy” and “Feed me, I’m hungry.”
What intrigued me was the fact Calypso used language in context and created syntactically correct new sentences. Many years later Cornell University ornithologists published research detailing how they had formally documented the same faculty in these highly intelligent birds.
Later on, I performed experiments in which I took baby starlings, raised them and exposed them to Calypso and his language (while remaining mum myself.) As I anticipated these birds readily picked up Calypso’s tunes and language, and then taught them to their offspring!
Calypso, of course, became “family” to me. So much so, in fact, I took him with me when I visited family and also when I traveled to job-related projects. For instance, while working in an agricultural laboratory and greenhouse complex near Lincoln, Nebraska during 1994-5 Calypso was there with me singing and talking to the amusement of colleagues and others who worked in the lab or came by to hang out.
In 1992 I launched the “North American Starling Fancier’s Society” to help bring together others who kept starling as pets. More than 100 people ultimately signed up. The premier issue of the NASFA newsletter follows below.
By 1995 my home aviary in Dallas had grown from a handful of birds to over 70 including not only starlings but Gouldian finches (Australian), Orange Cheek Waxbills (Africa), Cordon Bleus (Africa), Indian Ringnecks, cockatiels, Bengalese finches, and a host of others. This living laboratory not only taught me a great deal about bird behavior and their native intelligence but also afforded me the opportunity to develop a wide variety of bird nutrition mixes and medicines. I must have done something very right because my birds enjoyed extraordinary health and virtually all of them lived longer than what was published of “birds of like feather” in captivity. As best I could determine Calypso actually lived longer than any pet starling in recorded history.
NASFA as well as my once vast aviary lies in the past though my passion for birds has not diminished one iota with the passage of the years. Not surprisingly my ears perk up every time I hear a starling squawking from a power line or tree or come across a YouTube video of a pet starling singing and talking to beat the band.