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Waxwing Lyrical

Flying with Icarus and Daedalus

Cedar waxwings first became a presence in my life 30 years ago in Gainesville, Florida, when my wife brought two of them home from a bird rehabilitator who was searching for people who would take “unreleasable” birds. They had been part of a flock hit by a car, and each had lost a wing to amputation. Jesse named them Daedalus and Icarus, but I couldn’t remember which was which. Whenever I’d finally memorized that it was Icarus who was missing the right wing and Daedalus the left, she’d tell me I had it wrong again, and it was the other way round.

In Florida we kept them outdoors in a cage three feet high, with sticks and plastic toys braced through the wires for climbing. They ate ravenously, or waxwingously, you might say—whistling plaintively while Jesse served them raisins, grapes, currants, or diced apples each morning and afternoon and gobbling down the fruit as if they hadn’t been fed for days. Audubon once claimed that waxwings “gorge themselves to such excess as sometimes to be unable to fly and suffer themselves to be taken by hand. Indeed, I have seen some which, although wounded and confined to a cage, have eaten of apples until suffocation deprived them of life.”

Our captives apparently restrained themselves. Icarus, or maybe it was Daedalus, lived with us for four years, and his companion for seven. We took them with us on three moves, the longest an 1,100-mile journey to New Jersey—their cage the last household item we jammed into the backseat.

In New Jersey we kept them on our screened porch March through October and then in the kitchen through winter. Non-birding visitors often told us they were prettier than parakeets or lovebirds and asked where they might buy a pair themselves. One friend refused to believe they were native birds, until I took out our Golden Guide and showed him the picture. “Are they rare?” he asked. “Not really,” I said. “You could probably see them in your yard.” He arched an eyebrow, “A bird like that, I think I’d notice.”

When robin flocks flew over the house or into our trees, Icarus and Daedalus hopped about from perch to perch, tilting their heads to scan their old flying partners. When flocks of waxwings appeared, they jumped and trembled with excitement, whistling so fiercely it sounded like a shriek. And the wild birds seemed to answer back. Once, a flock landed in the shrubs 10 feet from the porch, and several free-flying waxwings gave our sad prisoners long, studying looks.

Icarus’s and Daedalus’s calls imprinted so well that for years later Cedar Waxwing was the one species I could detect as fast as the best ear birders. On Christmas counts someone else in our group was always the first to hear the woof of a Great Horned Owl off in the pre-dawn woods or the squeaks of kinglets foraging in the pines at midmorning, but in late afternoon, when that end-of-Christmas-count/end-of-another-year blahs had settled in, I liked to call out, “Waxwings!” three seconds before anyone else, then lean back with pride as two or three dozen of my birds flew into sight.

Is there a kinder, gentler bird anywhere? Or, one doing more good for the world? An old farmstead stands just inside the entrance of the college where I teach. When the state acquired the land for the campus 40 years ago, that corner was 20-plus acres of treeless dirt. Today, cherry trees and red cedars are marching relentlessly across the fields, shading the ground for teaberry, milkweeds, violets, bracken ferns, and mushrooms growing below. Nuthatches, creepers, chickadees, woodpeckers, flying squirrels, butterflies, and bees now forage there. “Waxwings and robins have built these woods,” I like to tell my students.

Waxwings are frugivores, of course, relying on fruit for more weeks of the year than any other birds in the temperate zone and for more than 80 percent of their diet. And trees, especially pioneer plants such as cherries, hawthorns, crab apples, and red cedars depend on waxwings, robins, and a handful of other fruit-eating species to distribute their seeds.

Waxwings vary the diet only in late spring and early summer, when berry stocks are at their annual low and nesting time is near. One June morning not long ago, I stepped onto our back deck with a cup of coffee and found about half a dozen waxwings that seemed to be plucking the white blossoms of the locusts high overhead. I had to go back for my bins before I believed it, though I learned later from several sources that it’s a regular habit. In his Life Histories, A. C. Bent quotes William Brewster’s 1937 report of a 15-minute observation: “During this time each bird must have eaten a dozen or more petals . . . sometimes swallowed whole . . . sometimes torn into halves. . . . I was convinced that they were eating only the petals and not selecting those that may have had insects in them.”

Waxwings do chase insects during those brief weeks in June and early July; they often forage over water chasing damselflies and other aquatic invertebrates, moving awkwardly to my eye, like under-equipped kingbirds. As soon as they can, they go back to fruit and follow each developing harvest through the seasons,—blueberry, huckleberry, inkberry, juniper, holly— for the next 10 or 11 months. That Cedar Waxwings can live on fruit so long so far north of the tropics would be a most remarkable story, if it were not for their even more northerly sister species.

A. C. Bent describes the Bohemian Waxwing as “a well-dressed gentleman in feathers, a Beau Brummel among birds.” They are also “birds of mystery [because] we never know where or when we may see these roving bands of gypsies.” They are a circumpolar species, ranging north and northwest on the North American continent as far as fruit-bearing plants grow. They wander throughout the boreal forests of western Canada and interior Alaska in pursuit of fruit.

Bohemians are among the rarer of the irruptive vagrants in most northeastern states, coming south in numbers just often enough to keep themselves on every discerning birder’s “most wanted list.”

They irrupted our way last winter, the largest flight to invade the mid-Atlantic states in at least half a century. Several were seen at Island Beach State Park on the Jersey Shore, only an hour away, and Jesse and I spent three weekend mornings there in unsuccessful searches, twice encountering groups of happy birders who could offer only that salt-in-wound solace, “You should have been here 20 minutes ago.”

The next weekend, we drove farther north to Sandy Hook and our luck changed. We parked our car exactly where the rare bird alert advised, walked down the path 100 yards, and came upon a celebrating pack of birders with scopes raised. “Do you have them?” I asked. “Take a look,” one man said, stepping back and waving us to his scope. Jesse looked first, and I looked second, getting perhaps a 15-second peek at two Bohemians perched together with a Cedar Waxwing above them. All three birds were lovely in their silky plumage, but the Bohemians showed that elegant, chestnut undertail. As I stepped away to raise my own scope, a sharpie flew into sight and hundreds of birds—robins, yellow-rumps, and Cedar and Bohemian waxwings—went off in a rush. “There they go!” someone shouted.

We chased them down the trail without success, and Jesse and I walked the paths at the Hook the rest of the day, but we did not see them again. That one glance was it. And, given the decades that generally pass between southward irruptions, and the chances of me taking a birding trip to the Alaskan interior anytime soon, those 15 seconds may be it—all I ever have to say firsthand about Bohemian Waxwings. I am not complaining, though—not by a long shot.

I can’t hear Cedar Waxwings anymore—unless they are flying very low, the forest is dead still, and the wind is just right. Nowadays, my students point them out to me first, then give me a pitiful look. “You can’t hear that?” they like to ask.

But I am not complaining about that, either, or at least I’m trying not to complain. When Daedalus, or maybe it was Icarus, finally gave up the ghost to aging, and we buried him in the yard after his seven years of sharing our porch with us, I took solace that we still had waxwings in our yard and the woods nearby. We have them still, of course. That is what matters in the long run.

 

For permission to reprint all or part of this article, please contact Tim Gallagher, editor, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 159 Sapsucker Woods Rd., Ithaca, NY, 14850. Phone: (607) 254-2443. email: twg3@cornell.edu

 
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