Whenever I see a Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) at this time of year I’m reminded of my days as Executive Director of the Texas Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, back in the late 1990s. For a few weeks every winter, the waxwings would appear by the cardboard box-full and the clinic would turn into… well, a different kind of rehab center.
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 thrill when they’re in the neighborhood.
They’re one of a handful of avians in the U.S. and Canada whose diet is composed largely (but not entirely) of fruit. This is an extremely helpful characteristic when one shares a breeding territory with brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) and other nesting parasites — species that they leave their eggs in the nests of other birds so the cowbird chicks are adopted and cared for like biological children. In fact, the foster nestlings normally out-compete the surrogate’s own offspring when food is being passed out. However, the high-sugar diet provided by waxwing parents, while perfect for their own kids, causes the cowbird chick to waste away.
Waxwing adaptability has allowed them to benefit from the introduction of non-native fruit-bearing plants used in urban and suburban landscaping. For example, they seem to love honeysuckle… and it shows. The red pigment in the exotic vine’s berries can turn the bird’s canary tail-tips bright orange, a plumage change birders and ornithologists first began to notice in the 1960s, around the same time honeysuckle was growing more popular with suburban homeowners.
Waxwings travel in flocks that may include 40+ individuals, all 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. From late autumn until plants have produced new spring and summer crops, the previous season’s berries, drupes, drupelets, pomes, and other sweet seed containers hang on, growing increasingly less… fresh, shall we say. Temperature fluctuations 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 snacks pack a punch. When you weigh slightly more than an ounce, the alcohol content doesn’t have to be very high to knock you for a loop. Next thing you know, birds are careening around on the front lawn as if they were leaving a New Year’s Eve bash.
It can look rather comical but it’s no laughing matter. Many inebriated birds are seriously injured or are killed when they drunkenly fly into cars and windows.
Good Samaritans across the country 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. 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 set out with a doozy of a hangover.
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March 11, 2012 at 6:52 pm
I couldn’t help but smile to myself when I read about these tiny little birds becoming intoxicated on the fermenting fruit they eat – but sadly, sometimes with terrible consequences. Thankfully, there are always some good Samaritans around to care for them before they are set free again.
I enjoyed this post so much.
March 12, 2012 at 12:17 pm
Hi Barb. It’s not just birds who can get hammered on fermented fruit. The longer winter lingers on, the scarcer food supplies become. Appetites are less picky and items that might be passed over when times are good are consumed when times are lean. Opossums and other omnivorous mammals have been known to wobble too! I’m no historian, but I have to wonder if humans came upon the idea of purposely fermenting fruit after feeling the effects of accidentally imbibing LOL
March 12, 2012 at 4:08 pm
Great post. I had no idea waxwings had to sleep it off sometimes!
April 15, 2012 at 7:21 pm
I wonder if fruit that has been frozen all winter ferments. I have never seen this behaviour, so I’m thinking that they clean off the fruit before it ferments. Interesting article. Thank you.