Your Friendly Neighborhood Waxwings

Birds are typically known for their grace and elegance. They emerge from the lingering chill of winter to soar gracefully overhead, surprise us with brilliant plumage, wake us at ungodly hours with their joyful pre-dawn chorus…

And then there’s the waxwings.

Picture a scene straight out of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds except the hapless victim is a holly bush, and the flocking attackers have all the vicious savagery of a pack of golden retrievers.

 

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Image credit: Kelly Colgan Azar via Flickr.

If ever you feel overwhelmed by a world that demands toughness and cold perfection to survive, allow me to introduce you to your friendly neighborhood waxwings. At first glance, they may be the very image of sleek sophistication, with tan-gray feathers delicately accented by bright yellow. However, beneath the striking black mask lies a personality with the refined elegance of a teddy bear.

 

Athens hosts a thriving population of Cedar waxwings, and if their tight-knit flocks in synchronized flight haven’t caught your eye, you may hear them first: their thin whistle, multiplied by a hundred or so, becomes less like a call and more like a boisterous crowd. Waxwings live in a state of perpetual family reunion: they eat, enjoy each others’ company, and eat some more. Lacking the faintest of territorial tendencies, they prefer to find companionship in huge, convivial flocks that roam leisurely from berry bush to berry bush.

Early 20th-century ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent described them as “the perfect gentleman of the bird world… sociable, never quarrelsome” and even “dignified in manner.” If you often find yourself wishing everyone would just get along, this is your bird.

Of course, this is not to say they are passive. Waxwings consider a cool and collected attitude toward one’s favorite things completely unnecessary. Take their love of berries (after all, any good social gathering must involve food). Waxwings have evolved to be one of the only birds in America that can survive entirely on fruit for months at a time. Experts call them “intensive foragers…” key word being intensive.

 

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While most birds politely peck out the seeds, waxwings don’t bother- they simply swallow the fruit whole. Image credit: Rogelio A. Galaviz C. via Flickr.

Some birds glide gracefully after insects, others skillfully feel the earth for the subtle vibration of an earthworm; waxwings, by contrast, descend on their meal en mass and stuff their little faces as quickly as possible.

 

The feeding frenzy tends to leave a mess of berry bits and fallen twigs on the sidewalk below- picture a winged cookie monster, and you’re halfway there. They may be less than polished, but this eagerness (or gluttony, depending on your interpretation) serves the birds well in the long run. Their sloppy table manners provide the perfect conditions for seed dispersal, ensuring more berry bushes to feast on down the road. Thus, waxwings demonstrate that messiness can be a perfectly valid survival tactic. (I told you!)

Of course, unbridled enthusiasm is not without occasional consequences. In their haste, waxwings have been known to accidentally (so we assume) consume overripe, fermented berries. Passerby later report inebriated birds stumbling around, weakly fluttering, or simply passed out in the grass (take a moment here to conjure your best mental image of an intoxicated songbird).

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Image credit: Henry T. McLin via Flickr.

 

“Dignified in manner,” indeed.

With a passion for berries that extends to the point of intoxication, you’d think waxwings would be a bit more possessive of their favorite food. However, the birds hold the equally strong conviction that a berry-filled life is best shared with friends. In the branches around their chosen holly bush, they can be found chattering away like old friends, grooming one another, and even playing games.

A favorite game of theirs involves passing an object such as a leaf back and forth between two birds, performing a little hop along the branch with each exchange. Waxwings in love adopt a romantic variation on this “hopping dance” in which the couple may coyly shuffle a flower petal between them, or even a berry- at least until someone’s self-control wears out, and one partner decides to swallow it.

If all this fun and games makes them hungry again, waxwings have been known to line up along a branch and pass berries down the line to any friends who can’t reach- just like passing the potatoes at a big family dinner.

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Image credit: C Watts via Flickr.

Thus, in a world that so often operates under fear of scarcity, waxwings trust the abundance of time enough to relax in each others’ company, and the abundance of spring enough to share their meal generously. That’s the kind of survival strategy I can get behind.

 

Any good nature documentary can tell you that the natural world is dangerous, fiercely elegant, and arresting in its rugged beauty. Here in Athens, however, it can be as harmlessly endearing as berry-obsessed bunch of birds. So if you happen to pass a cheering avian crowd this spring, take a moment to pause and appreciate nature at its friendliest… just be careful not to let berry bits fall in your hair.

 

About the Author

Rosemary WillisRosemary Wills is an undergraduate at UGA majoring in Plant Biology and Science Education. When she’s not writing, coding, or spending time with family, she enjoys growing plants in her windowsill and crocheting science-related things. More from Rosemary Wills.