Waxwings

(This column was first published in the August 20, 2001 Buffalo News.)

Over 40 years ago we lived in a little Erie Canal house near Rochester. The canal had been rerouted but its shallow bed remained a few yards away. Even then that house was over a hundred years old. It had axe-hewn logs supporting its frame in the basement instead of the usual steel I-beams of modern houses. Its oak floors took a high shine and showed beautifully around the rugs my mother braided for us. But it also had low ceilings, less than seven feet high, which informed us how much shorter our ancestors must have been. That tiny house that so well served us with our two infant children has unfortunately long since been sacrificed to the transportation god of arterial expressways.

We had a dozen aging fruit trees in the yard behind that house, mostly pears but one apple and two sour cherries. In springtime our lawn was awash in their delicate white petals, in summer strewn with windrows of fruit, and in fall hidden under small waxy leaves.

Those trees had received little care for many years. They were gnarled and twisted, stunted in growth, and subject to rot. Never protected by insecticides, they were an insect haven. Our elderly neighbors claimed that you could float those bugs out by covering cherries with water overnight, but we never could bring ourselves to share fruit with its specialized maggots, borers, and slugs. We simply left it on the trees for the birds and animals.

That made our yard a magnet for birds. Chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers probed for insects along limbs, an occasional cuckoo plucked caterpillars from leaves, while robins and waxwings and a lone thrasher gorged themselves on luscious fruit.

The cedar waxwings were by far the most interesting. One day four of these lovely brown birds with their jaunty crests and their delicate markings of black, white, yellow and red, sat close together on the phone wire leading to the house. Another waxwing joined them with a big sour cherry in its bill. Perhaps because it was already stuffed or perhaps because it was simply courtly, the waxwing passed the cherry along to its neighbor. Evidently not really wanting the cherry but too polite to refuse it, this one took the ripe fruit, turned its head, and passed it on to the next bird. And so the cherry passed up and down the line until one of the birds finally dropped it to the ground below.

Clearly the waxwings enjoy an etiquette quite like our own for they carefully avoided noticing the accident. No bird looked down. Instead, after a short time one left the line, flew to a tree to pick another cherry, and returned to commence the routine once again.

I remain convinced that those were all male waxwings in a kind of stag line. A female among them would surely have accepted the proffered cherry as a signal of affection and would not have passed it on to a rival of either giver or taker.

Unfortunately those birds mirrored our society in another way. While much of their behavior was entertaining, some could not hold their liquor. It may even be the case that those polite birds who passed the sour cherries up and down the line were squeezing a little high octane booze out of the overripe fruit as they briefly gripped it in their bills. In any case each year several of those waxwings flew directly into the unobstructed white back wall of our house, killing themselves.

I'd have placed an "If you drink, don't fly!" warning sign in my orchard, but I didn't know the waxwing alphabet.-- Gerry Rising