A Minyan of Cedar Waxwings
The delights of watching a flock of berry-eaters practice their cautious calculus.
Yesterday my wife, Sara, spent three hours standing stock-still on a basketball court near where we live in Berkeley, waiting to take photos of Cedar Waxwings feasting on Pyracantha berries. At the moment when I joined her there — about, oh, two hours and 45 minutes into her vigil — no feeding was happening. There were a couple of bushes packed with luscious, as-yet-uneaten bright-red berries; above them, empty transmission wires.
“Just wait,” she whispered. I silently noted to myself that it was incredibly friggin’ cold and windy out there.
As Sara pointed out to me, about 50 birds were perched high up in a nearby tree. Over the course of her observations, they’d already gone a few times through a certain progression. In Sara’s words: “One brave member of the flock, a scout, would sit on the wire near the berry bushes. Then after 15 minutes two more would join the first bird. Then a few more would land. Finally the rest of the flock would fly over, and they’d go into a feeding frenzy. Inevitably a biker or pedestrian would pass by the bushes, and all the birds would fly back up into the tall tree! Very frustrating, but very fun for me!”
I was fascinated to learn that the flock had this heroic alpha bird, whom I nicknamed Scout (I know I should have worked harder on the nickname, but it was COLD!). Also, that it was only when he’d been joined on the wire by a small vanguard of hardy followers — a minyan, if you will — that things could really get going.
Sara got back into birding when she retired in June of 2020, after 35 years of public-school teaching. The first few times I joined her — riding our e-bikes along the San Francisco Bay Trail — it was as a bemused nature-phobe, a persona begun in my Manhattan childhood and then cultivated over decades of being intensely ill-at-ease whenever I was more than a few feet away from an excellent bathroom. (I still feel that way about bathrooms.) I love Sara with all my heart, and I was thrilled to see her get so much joy from checking out the local birds — or, as she calls them, “boiids” (yes, with two “i’s,” for that extra boinginess). But then, to my amazement, I started getting obsessed with birding myself. I developed favorites, though I learned from Sara that I should refrain from pointing and yelling out their name when I spotted them (“Oystercatcher!” “Surf Scoter!”), which might cause them to fly away. I also found out that some birds don’t like having humans staring at them (yes, I’m thinking about you, Osprey who flew all the way over from a radio tower near Point Isabel just to aim a stream of poo at me!).
But I came here today to tell you about those Cedar Waxwings! So here are some of Sara’s photos from yesterday:
Sara and I love how these birds seem to draw comfort and safety from their community. Maybe there’s a lesson in there somewhere?