The Birds 2: Bohemian Waxwings

The Birds II: a story of waxwings

The other day I was inside cleaning the apartment (this is how every great story starts, I’m sure). In the background I could hear this noise. It sounded like birds, but like, an insane amount of birds. Not the amount of birds that are usually outside at the end of February, that’s for sure.

Curious, right.

I went to the window and found myself looking out at literally hundreds of small-ish birds, hanging out in the trees around the building, sometimes taking synchronized flights in groups of 20+, and chirping an incredible amount.

My first instinct? Go outside and walk through them. But take out the garbage while I’m at it, to keep up good appearances of course.

(We’re renting an apartment in a condo building mostly filled with the people that actually own the condos, and I imagine them sitting around a table watching my every move, perhaps judging me—the newcomer renter—a little bit harsher than everyone else. At the same time, I’m sure this doesn’t actually happen. We were a hit at the Christmas party.)

Back to it. Out the garbage comes with me, and once that’s done I decide to take a walk on the path that winds through the bird-filled trees.

Obviously I am not afraid of birds, nor have I ever seen the movie Birds, else I may have not been inclined to do this.

Since I actually don’t know about the novel or the movie, and have only experienced other people making that reference, let me do some research. You get to come along and learn with me, you lucky ducks.

(Are there people who are afraid of ducks? They’re birds, but something about them seems entirely harmless in comparison to a raven. Perhaps it’s because they aren’t scavengers.)

A detour into The Birds, an Alfred Hitchcock film.

You guys, I’ve just read the synopsis on Wikipedia. It starts with seagulls. SEAGULLS. And chickens are involved. Turns out, if this movie is what made you afraid of birds, you may very well be afraid of ducks.

Essentially, it’s a tale of mysterious bird behaviours that progressively get more serious as the film goes on, to the point where all types of birds are attacking people in swarms.

Here’s a trailer for the movie. And before you judge it for it’s quality, remember that it’s from 1963, when horror films more often played off emotions (not just fear, but anticipation, suspense, paranoia, and all those fun things), instead of just making us jump in our seats.

Also let me throw this little gem in here:

I’ve never seen a trailer quite like this one, where Hitchcock essentially intros the movie and gets the viewers into the right mindset. It’s genius really.

All this to say that had I seen The Birds, I’d definitely not jump at the opportunity to walk through trees full of hundreds of birds, all of whom were flying haphazardly and singing at the top of their lungs. That scene itself could very well been a part of The Birds movie.

But I did, and that’s why we are here.

The story continues.

As I was walking, I encountered one of my neighbours, who was equally fascinated by the birds as I was. But she had insider information.

“They’re cedar waxwings,” she said, “and they’re eating the old berries off the trees.” Aha. Explains the crazy behaviour. The berries are fermented, and the birds are drunk. She went on to explain that apparently the birds have been moving west through the neighbourhood in a sort of swarm, cleaning off the berries from the trees as they go. We guessed the birds would leave by the following day. Just as quickly as they arrived, they’d be gone.

We were right, but it was only a few hours later. Those waxwings don’t waste any time.

Cedar Bohemian Waxwings

Waxwings are a medium sized bird with a pale brown head that fades to grey. The tips of their tails are short, squared-shaped, and bright yellow. I had a fair amount of trust in my neighbour when she called them Cedar Waxwings, but of course I looked it up to confirm when I got inside. After a quick check, she seemed correct—they definitely had distinct yellow-tipped tails.

However, more research was required for this post, so I’ve just spent about 20 minutes attempting to determine whether or not the birds I saw were Cedar Waxwings, or Bohemian Waxwings. Plot twist! Long story short, due to the lack of any yellow tinge on their bellies, my conclusion is that they are in fact Bohemian Waxwings. Also the time of year and location: I’m in Edmonton, Alberta, and it’s winter. There’s a map comparison here.

Well that was an unexpected shift.

So now we’re talking crazy Bohemian Waxwings. Research FTW! Turns out Bohemian waxwings have a few interesting facts, though. I’m a fan of interesting facts.

  • The name “Bohemian” refers to the nomadic movements of winter flocks. It comes from the inhabitants of Bohemia, meaning those that live an unconventional lifestyle or like that of gypsies.
  • They do not hold breeding territory and as a consequence, they have no true song. They don’t need one to defend a territory.

Thanks to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology for those.

And now, back to their crazy behaviour.

Fermented berries + flying is not a good combination.

I’m amazed these birds were able to land on tree branches and keep their balance. Not to mention flying synchronously in groups. In any case, standing out front my building, I’ve never had that many birds appear to fly directly at my head, and then veer off last minute to the tree beside me.

Like I said, this is not an environment for people who are afraid of birds (ornithophobia, if you were wondering).

Apparently, waxwings have a larger than normal liver, which helps them tolerate fermented berries a little better, but it wasn’t really helping these guys.

This article, An Open Letter to Drunk Waxwings, sums things up nicely. Here’s how it starts:

Dear Bohemian Waxwings,

Your public drunkenness has become a problem for me, and it’s time we had a chat.

The End.

‘Till next time. If I don’t come back, the waxwings have got me.

Here’s a video I took for my Instagram story, back when I thought they were cedar waxwings ;)