If you notice a flock of brownish, medium-sized birds zipping around your neighborhood making high-pitched “sree” noises and gobbling up all the privet berries left over from summer, grab your binoculars. They might be cedar waxwings, little birds so exquisite in detail you’d think they lay Fabergé Easter eggs.
Actually, their eggs are fairly ordinary—but the birds! They are silky and smooth, never a feather out of place. Males and females look alike, the warm brown of their chests graduating to a strong but tasteful yellow on their bellies. Their crests will help you identify them, as will their bold, black eye masks, which look something like vintage wraparound Ray-Bans. They have perfect, bright yellow stripes at the ends of their tails, and at the ends of their wings, brilliant red drops that look like—well, wax.
The “cedar” part of the waxwings’ name (Bombycilla cedrorum in Latin) comes from the red cedar, an eastern juniper whose berries they are particularly fond of. Out here, besides privet, they enjoy the fruits of mistletoe, madrone, juniper, mulberry, toyon, chokecherry, honeysuckle, cherry and so on. In summer they supplement their diet with insects and insect larvae. And here we learn this pretty little bird’s dirty little secret: It’s a glutton. It has been conservatively estimated that a flock of 30 cedar waxwings in a single month could consume 90,000 cankerworms (a type of moth larva). Not only that, they’ve been known to gorge themselves so extravagantly on berries that they can’t fly.
On the other hand, they are generous and gregarious. If there is a bunch of berries on the end of a twig that will support only one bird, the flock may line up and pass berries to each other from beak to beak so they all get something to eat. (It’s wonderful to think that nature supports such altruism. For a great discussion of this, check out the Radiolab episode “The Good Show.”)
Perhaps the image of birds eating berries and not being able to fly makes you wonder if they were drunk. We’ve all heard this happens, and in fact, Caltrans stopped planting pyracantha on highway medians because birds would eat the fermented red berries and then veer into traffic when trying to take flight. It seems the birds do get intoxicated, but not on purpose—they just don’t realize they’re eating fermented berries.
The cedar waxwings will be around for a while longer and then they’ll head north to nest. I saw some on Alhambra Way the other day and I was lucky enough to have some binoculars within reach. I hope you’ll be equally lucky—it’s like magic, when you look at an ordinary brown bird just a little longer and a little harder, to find such beauty.