Cedar Waxwings learn lessons about flying drunk

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing, photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published March 21, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Visiting cedar waxwings learn lesson.”

2014 Update: To learn more about Cedar Waxwings, go to http://www.allaboutbirds.org.

By Barb Gorges

Driving under the influence is a tragedy waiting to happen. Flying inebriated can also have fatal results as was illustrated in our backyard.

It was Feb. 23 and I was assembling my lunch when I heard two thwunks, one right after the other on different windows facing the backyard. Birds, no doubt.

As I brought my sandwich to the table, I realized one of the cats was looking intently out the window to the patio below. I followed his stare and saw a cedar waxwing lying on the concrete.

In the seconds it took me to run out the back door, it died, the milky-white nictating membranes pulled over its eyes. As I picked it up, the head lolled. Broken neck.

I’d been hearing the flock for the past few days, a faint, wispy, background sound, not to be heard on a regular basis. Waxwings don’t migrate predictably so much as they go where the berries are. And the neighbors’ juniper bushes are full. Over the winter, berries can sometimes ferment, leading to intoxication and poor flying judgment.

I wonder if drunk birds also smack into natural obstacles?

Windows confuse birds, reflecting landscapes like mirrors. However, half of each of our windows is screened and I hope that breaks the image or allows a bird to bounce off the flexible material rather than hard glass.

Mark and I leave the shiny side of the windows dusty, tape junk CDs shiny side out, and add those static window stickers. This time there was even a staring cat.

Waxwings would be easy to carve. Their pale brown plumage is so fine you don’t notice individual feathers, except for the wing tips with their little drops of red “wax,” a carotenoid pigment substance.

They have a black mask, a crest on the back of the head and a band of bright yellow on the tip of their tail, as if someone had dipped them in paint.

I couldn’t bring myself to bag and toss in the garbage this gorgeous bird so I left it to naturally decay where the dog wouldn’t get it.

I forgot all about the second thwunk until I let the dog out but called her back before she noticed the second bird.

It was another cedar waxwing, huddled on the cement, but breathing. Just stunned.

I set it on the back wall to give it a better vantage point to fly from when it recovered. It didn’t have the red drips on its wing tips and later I read that birds hatched last year won’t have them yet by this spring. One lucky teenager.

It occurred to me to run back in the house and grab my camera. I got one bad photo and while lining up for a second, the bird flew over my head. Good.

Being a sunny, 50-degree day, I decided to eat my neglected sandwich on the back steps, in the company of two dozen waxwings in the tree overhead. They sat still and quiet, blending in with the bare gray-brown branches, except for their pale yellow bellies.

Were they having a moment of silence for their fallen comrade? Or had they decided to sober up before flying again? I couldn’t ask them and find out.

When son Jeffrey came in from school he announced there was a dead cedar waxwing on the front step. I checked the wing tips. Another youngster. It left a few tiny feathers stuck to the front window.

It is now March 13 as I write this, three weeks since I first heard the flock. It is still here. We have found no other accident scenes. Evidently, the waxwings have learned to avoid the windows and it seems they learn from each other since we would have noticed if all 30-40 of them had had to bump into our windows to learn the lesson.

Every time I take the dog out, I listen for the waxwings. They are either across the street in the junipers picking berries, or resting in our trees. Jeffrey can’t wait for them to move on so it will be worth his while to wash the car he parks in the driveway under a tree.

This is the longest cedar waxwings have ever stayed in the neighborhood and I know they will leave at some point. And, just like their larger and even more nomadic counterparts, the Bohemian waxwings, their return will be as unpredictable.

If waxwings were as common as house sparrows and starlings, would I enjoy them as much? Perhaps I should take a closer look at those abundant species. But then, they hardly ever crash into windows.

Spring migration has been going on for a couple months already, imperceptibly if you didn’t know to watch the waterfowl. In the last week I’ve seen robins, heard mourning doves and heard reports of bluebirds and so the rush begins.

Most migrating birds won’t be drunk, but they don’t stay long enough to learn the local obstacle course, so I guess we will leave cleaning windows until later. I should hang more deterrents. And then it will be baby bird season and they fly into everything. And then it’s migration season again.

Well, if it looks like we never wash our windows, you’ll know why. Besides, who has time for chores when there are birds coming in?