Wobbling Waxwings

Cedar waxwing feasting on berries
Cedar waxwing feasting on crabapples (©iStockphoto.com/Greggory Frieden)


A few weeks ago Pat in South Carolina mentioned she was watching the local songbirds get drunk on wild grapes, and I was immediately transported back in time to my days as director of a wildlife center in Houston, Texas. For a few weeks every year, the cedar waxwings would show up by the cardboard box-full and the rehabilitation clinic would turn into… well, a different kind of rehab center.

A flock of cedar waxwings in Kerrville, Texas, USA.
A flock of cedar waxwings in Kerrville, Texas, USA (Photo: ©Anna Crull, used with permission)

With their handsome, distinctive plumage, even a newbie birder can easily recognize this species. Their yellow tail- and red wing-tips look as if they’ve been dipped in sealing wax—thus the name. With a range that covers much of North America, waxwings aren’t rare but they’re not as common as some of our iconic backyard birds, so it’s always a bit of a thrill when they’re in the neighborhood. They travel in flocks—sometimes with 40 or more individuals—searching for pyracantha and privet, choke cherries, mulberries, and any other tree or shrub that bears sugary fruit. Once they’ve gobbled up every last berry, they move along without a backward glance.

Unless the fruit is spiked.

It’s not a matter of someone trying to contribute to avian delinquency. Temperature fluctuations during fall and winter and the presence of wild yeasts often will cause fruit to ferment in situ. Migration and colder temperatures make for voracious birds and the waxwings are carbo-loading as fast as they can swallow. They don’t seem to notice some of the berries pack a punch. When you weigh slightly more than an ounce, the alcohol content doesn’t have to be very high to do the trick. Next thing you know, birds are careening around on the front lawn like New Year’s Eve.

It can look rather comical but it’s no laughing matter. Many inebriated birds are seriously injured or are killed when they fly into cars and windows.

Good Samaritans across the county scoop disoriented birds into cardboard boxes and head for the nearest wildlife rehabilitation center. There, the birds are given a head-to-toe, beak-to-tail examination and any injuries are treated. Most of the patients are simply allowed to safely sleep it off in a warm, dark room before being released to continue their travels… although they probably have a doozy of a headache.

Do the birds in your neighborhood have you organizing AA (Avian Alcoholics) interventions? Share your story in the comments section below! And if you have a question about next-door nature send me an email—the answer may turn up as a future blog post. Don’t forget to friend NDN on Facebook!

© 2010 Next-Door Nature — no reprints without written permission from the author.

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