I looked up from my computer keyboard this morning and received my annual notice that winter is on its way out. The notice always takes the same form--a flock of cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) busily devouring berries from the trees outside my window.
These nomadic birds are among the hardiest of the feathered tribe, traveling south each winter only as far as necessary to find food and keep a positive balance in their caloric bank accounts. Apparently, Jefferson City is at the far end of this particular flock’s southward hegira. They always turn up in January, when the sun is low in the sky, lending extra drama to their handsome plumage.
You would think that changing my calendar on Jan. 1 would be reminder enough that the days are growing longer. But nothing brings home the reality that winter is losing its grip like seeing these cheery birds and knowing they soon will begin the journey back to their breeding grounds in the northern United States and southern Canada.
Cedar waxwings’ common name comes from their fondness for the powder-blue berries of the eastern red cedar. However, they are equally fond of berries from other trees and bushes. They often travel in flocks numbering in the hundreds, and I have seen them strip every berry from the cedar and hackberry trees around my home in a single day.
What most endears cedar waxwings to me is their habit of communal and cooperative eating. Instead of fighting for access to berry-laden branches, half a dozen waxwings perch side by side, daintily passing berries from beak to beak as the bird nearest the tip of the branch plucks them. It’s enough to make you reconsider standard notions about which species are most evolved.