I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.
—Shakespeare, Henry IV, part 1
The other week, I came up with a frankly ridiculous hypothesis (I won't dignify it with the description theory) about starlings [Sturnus vulgaris]. Ridiculous and fanciful though it undoubtedly is, I record it here, in the unlikely event that it turns out to be true, so that nobody else can take credit for thinking it up. It's a priority issue:
Starlings (or European starlings, to give them their international name, as we're supposed to these days) are reasonably accomplished mimics. Not as accomplished, it must be said, as their close cousins the mynahs, but they have been known to imitate the sounds of other birds—and, indeed, man-made objects. As a child in the 70s, I well remember the local starlings' occasionally imitating a neighbour's Trimphone. In later years, as technology advanced, their descendants took to calling out like car alarms—a habit which seems to have died out as car alarms became more reliable, emitting false alarms much less frequently.
The collective noun for starlings is a murmuration. Indeed, when the birds congregate in the winter months and settle to roost, they do murmur incessantly to each other. But in amongst the murmurs, there are subdued snap, crackle and popping noises. The overall effect is uncannily like the noise made by Dr Frankenstein's electrical apparatus just before he throws the master switch, or, less fancifully, a high-tension electrical transmission line.
Which is where my ridiculous hypothesis comes in. I am wondering whether the modern-day murmuration of starlings incorporates elements of electrical snap, crackle and pop, picked up by these semi-accomplished mimics as they gather for a murmur on electrical transmission lines.
No, I don't think so either.
Well, obviously they're mimicking well known breakfast cereals. Starlings aren't just brilliant mimics (better than mynah birds, according to my local contact), they're grreeeeat!