Party time for cedar waxwings

Bob Muller/Flickr

Bob Muller/Flickr

We don’t generally think of critters as having bad habits like public drunkenness. It’s humans that are the party animals, right?

Then you meet characters like the cedar waxwing, an erratic avian visitor to our area through the winter and early spring. If you have plants with persistent winter berries, like holly, pyracantha, crab apple or juniper, you may be surprised one day by the sudden appearance of waxwings and have occasion to observe their gluttonous revelry.

When they descend upon a stand of berries in groups of 100 or more, it’s with the enthusiasm of frat boys on midterm break. They will stuff themselves silly, making party chat while they strip the branches clean.

Some say it is gorging on over-ripe, partially fermented berries that makes them act like drunks, insensible and unable to fly. Others claim that they simply eat so much that the load of berries in their crops presses heavily on their carotid arteries, rendering them unconscious — or at least impaired.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), there are no bird police around to give these birds a Breath-o-lyzer test or to slap them with fines for flying while intoxicated, but like many drunken fools, they are at risk.

John James Audubon, the noted artist and naturalist, didn’t have to shoot waxwings to acquire specimens for his paintings. He could just pick them off the ground while they were staggering around under the trees and cart them off to his studio.

Once in a while, I've spotted waxwings working their way through a neighborhood stand of holly or juniper, the flock shimmering in tight formation like a school of fish. These are extremely handsome birds, and quite unmistakable.

Their plumage is primarily a medley of buff and cinnamon brown of a texture smooth as silk — in fact, their genus name Bombycilla comes from the Greek word "bombukos," meaning "silken texture." The species name, cedrorom , refers to the waxwing's favorite nosh, the "berries" of the Eastern red cedar. In a misnomer that I've never understood, this familiar evergreen is not a cedar at all, but a native juniper, Juniperus virginiana, to be exact.

Jen Goelinitz/Flickr

Jen Goelinitz/Flickr

The waxwing might look almost too suave were it not for its raffish bandit mask and its jaunty crest, which it uses to signal alarm and curiosity. The "wax" of the wings is unique — only waxwings, cedar and Bohemian, have these appendages at the end of their secondary wing feathers. As bright as red sealing wax, these tips may figure in mating since they provide clues to the bird's age — older individuals have more.

In the mating ritual, the male will bring an offering, usually a berry but sometimes a flower petal, and present it to a potential lady love. If receptive, she will accept the gift, hop to one side to display her wings and their waxen jewels, and then give the food back. They pass the tidbit back and forth any number of times before one finally eats it.

Unusually gregarious, waxwings tend to share food rather than compete with one another for available resources. Observers have documented the waxwing version of a conga line.

Picture a line of birds perched shoulder-to-shoulder on a branch. One bird will pluck a berry and give it to his neighbor, who in turn politely passes it along, an action repeated again and again until the morsel is eaten. They'll do this repeatedly until the fruit is gone.

Alternately, they'll gather in a nearby tree used as a staging area, and take turns shuttling to the berry-bearing bushes to eat. Mannerly creatures that they are, they will also take turns bathing in a puddle or bird bath until everyone is refreshed and clean.

The cedar waxwing, strictly a New World species, is the one most dependent on fruit, which makes up fully 85 to 90 percent of its diet. Since seeds pass intact through their digestive systems, they are responsible for spreading their favorite food plants throughout their range. Generally it is only in the summer that waxwings take insects to bolster their fledglings' protein rations.

The birds tend to gravitate to food sources that are near water, since they need a steady supply of liquid to quench the mighty thirst brought on by eating so much high-sugar fruit. That would certainly make sense to anyone who has awakened after a night of partying with a hellacious case of cotton-mouth.

There are still things we don't know about the social, fun-loving cedar waxwing. Chief among them is whether they suffer from hangovers. We could sympathize, couldn't we? But some things we'll never know, and perhaps it's for the best.