Flock of cedar waxwings provides ‘berry’ exciting observation

Photo Courtesy of Jim Kroll • Cedar waxwings form large flocks that are capable of stripping berries off trees in a matter of hours when these hungry birds descend on berry-producing trees and shrubs.

Jim Kroll emailed me awhile back to share an observation he made when he and his wife visited Garden City, South Carolina. According to Jim, while riding their bicycles they had the good luck to see a flock of cedar waxwing feasting on berries in a large tree.

“This tree was probably 20 feet tall, and loaded with blue berries,” he wrote.

He also shared a photo of the flock. “There are around 30 waxwings plucking berries,” he said in describing the photo.

He estimated that the flock numbered well over 100 waxwings.

“They left the tree top several times, as if startled, but they would return within a minute and continue their feast,” Jim wrote. “The thing that first caught our attention as we rode under the tree, is that my wife noticed a lot of small pieces of green limbs laying in the road directly under the tree. We turned around to see why the road had so many green limbs and noticed the waxwing flock feasting.”

They made it a point to ride by the tree again on the following two days, hoping to see the waxwing flock again, but did not see them again.

They also discovered that no berries remained on the tree’s branches. The waxwings had consumed all of the berries.

“I looked at an article on the South Carolina Public Radio website that said this is the time of the year that waxwings were migrating south through South Carolina,” Jim wrote.

I replied to Jim’s email and shared an account of an observation I made several years ago at Erwin Fishery Park.

On that occasion, my mom and I watched a couple of mockingbirds wage a losing battle to keep a flock of at least 100 waxwings out of a holly tree laden with berries. The mockingbirds might chase off a dozen waxwings, but there were always a few dozen ready to swoop in and take their place. That tree, too, was stripped of berries. The next time I stopped by I could not detect a single berry still on the tree.

After I shared my waxwing story, Jim replied with some more observations.

“I can see the mockingbirds that you mentioned trying to protect their berry stash,” he wrote. “We regularly see mockingbirds, seemingly being aggressive.”

Jim said that he has also re-named blue jays that visit his bird feeders.

“I call them ‘bully birds’ because they swoop in intentionally trying to scare off the other birds at the feeder,” he wrote.

I thought it interesting that my brother, Mark, told me about a flock of waxwings that he and his wife, Amy, saw at their home in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. His story was similar to the one Jim shared.

Mark said a flock of waxwings arrived in his yard and swiftly stripped a berry-producing tree of its berries.

Waxwings have a brown and gray silky plumage, a black mask and a perky crest. Some of the wing feathers show red tips. The similarity of these wing tips to melted drops of wax gives these birds the common name of waxwing.

The cedar waxwing has few relatives. Worldwide, there are only two other species: the Bohemian waxwing, of the northern forests of Eurasia and North America; and the Japanese waxwing, found in such northeast Asian countries as Japan, Korea and China.

Although it’s classified as a songbird, the cedar waxwing doesn’t truly produce a vocalization that anyone would contend qualifies as a song. They are, however, very vocal birds, producing shrill, high-pitched notes as they pass through the upper branches of tall trees.

As much as the waxwing has a fondness for fruit, it’s also a bird that would have made an excellent flycatcher. Flocks of these birds will often congregate in trees near the edge of a pond, garden or yard — anywhere winged insects might be found in good numbers — in order to hawk insects on the wing. A waxwing will sally forth from a branch, snatch its prey in mid-air, and return to its perch for a quick snack.

Waxwings are rather nomadic, coming and going with a maddening unpredictability.

Other birds are more dependable, arriving and departing at roughly the same time year after year.

Over the next few weeks, we can expect the spring arrivals of a vast variety of birds. To share a sighting, make a comment or ask a question, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The waxy tips to the wing feathers are evident in this photograph of a cedar waxwing.

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