For the Birds Radio Program: Mortimer Update

Original Air Date: July 12, 1989

How’s Laura’s baby starling doing?

Audio missing


(Recording of a European Starling)

Listeners have been asking me how Mortimer’s doing. Mortimer is a baby starling that I’m raising in an experiment to see if starlings can really be taught to speak. Starlings were introduced to America by a Shakespearean club in New York simply because the Bard mentioned them once in a single play, and some people conjecture that ironically Shakespeare wasn’t actually speaking of a starling anyway. They claim that in the line “I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer,” Shakespeare was really thinking of its close relative, the Indian Hill Mynah.

My experiment is designed to determine whether the introduction of this species was a literary mistake or simply an ornithological one.

Well, Mortimer is doing just fine. He’s turned into a delightful pet. He lives in a big cage in my seven-and-a-half year old son Joey’s room. When Joey covers his bed with a special blanket and puts his toys and clothes away, he can let Mortimer fly around his room. Mortimer clearly recognizes Joey and me, and flies to us for food and companionship. He’s curious and interested in all sorts of things—he pushes little balls around the floor and investigates everything he can find, from legos and marbles to a papier mache pig and an R2D2 that Joey made from a big plastic pop bottle and some cardboard.

It takes a lot of vigilance to let a starling fly free in a room—the kids call him the lean, mean, potty machine—but because he’s so frequently let out, he doesn’t resent his cage when he does have to stay in it. Our experiment requires that Mortimer be completely socialized. Starlings are by nature social birds, and since Mortimer is imprinted on humans now, he needs to spend a lot of time with us. He’s still being hand fed, and is also handled frequently by all of us. Joey and my five-year-old daughter Katie are experienced enough to know how to hold him gently. Three-year-old Tommy needs supervision, but even he’s getting used to the bird fluttering up and landing on his head. Because I’ve kept the bird with the kids from the time I got him, with his eyes still closed, he not only isn’t afraid of Tommy’s squeals of delight—he actually seems to enjoy them.

Since our goal is to teach Mortimer to speak, we want him to hear a lot of talking. Right now I’m reading a few chapters of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to the kids every day in Joey’s room. We leave Mortimer loose during reading time, and he always flutters over and sits on my hand while I read. He has a loud, raspy begging call at feeding time, but during reading time he actually seems to sing, making long sweet burblings that last for up to five minutes.

He’s too curious and active for me to bring him to the KUMD studios to tape, but I’ll be taking recording equipment home as he starts making more sounds. He’s only 5 weeks old now, and I’m not expecting him to actually say words until next spring. I do hope that he’ll be able to say his name by the 100th anniversary of the introduction of the starling, next March 16th. Of course, if Mortimer turns out to be a female, our experiment won’t work, and even if he’s a male it may really be that Shakespeare didn’t know what he was talking about, and that starlings really can’t talk. But whether or not Mortimer learns to speak, he’s been rescued from certain death, there’s one fewer starling in the wild to compete against native birds, and Joey Erickson has one swell pet.

(Recording of a European Starling)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”