A Fruitful Year

Some years are more fruitful than others.  Last year was one of those years.  From mid-June until mid-August I never set out for my morning walk without slipping a pint jar into my pocket.  I wanted to be prepared to pick first the low bush blueberries, then the huckleberries on the powerline right-of-way, and later, in August, the blackberries that overhung the Far Field Road.

But for nearly three weeks in July, most of my berry-picking centered on our home grounds where, for the first time in more than two decades, black raspberries escaped most of the ravages of deer and the attention of black bears and produced a crop that I could barely keep up with.

Video of Marcia picking raspberries in 2008. (Subscribers must click through to watch.)

Back in 1971, when we first saw our place on a Fourth of July weekend, I couldn’t believe the abundance of black raspberries growing in the backyard. Over the years, as the deer herd increased, the black raspberry canes decreased. Then, the bears appeared. Those canes that survived the browsing of the deer, namely those growing on the steep slope below the front porch, were trampled by bears overnight and stripped of their almost-ripe fruit.

The ubiquitous white-tailed deer

The ubiquitous white-tailed deer

During the last several years, our hunters have trimmed the deer herd and the black raspberries have begun to recover.  Last summer we had a perfect storm of berries — patches outside the kitchen door, below the front porch, surrounding the springhouse, on a steep slope beside the guesthouse, and in the guesthouse backyard.  Secondary patches thrived beside the driveway and in our side yard.  Every hot, humid morning I was out early, picking several quarts.  Although some went into the freezer for winter fruit salads, we ate most at our meals, either alone or combined with blueberries and huckleberries, depending on whether I had the strength and will to pick both in one day.

The word “fruit” comes from the Latin fructus meaning “that which is used or enjoyed,” and we certainly did both with our wild berry crops.  I did most of the picking.  Occasionally, I was rewarded with more than berries.  Once in the patch outside the kitchen door I found a song sparrow nest that contained four greenish-white eggs heavily blotched with brown.  While picking blueberries on the powerline right-of-way, a tiny American toad hopped in front of me.  Hooded warblers serenaded me as I harvested blackberries on the Far Field Road.

With all the bears on our mountain, I was surprised that they left the black raspberries alone and that I never encountered them amidst the blueberry and huckleberry shrubs.  No doubt, the incredible abundance of wild berries everywhere on our mountain kept them busy.  I, after all, ranged only a mile or so in search of berries, but I knew of other patches on neighboring properties that had as much or more berries than our property and that were not picked by humans. And the bear scat on our trails certainly showed evidence that they were enjoying berries as much as we were.

Not only did the wild fruit crops palatable to humans thrive.  So too did those palatable to birds and animals, such as the red-berried elder, also called mountain elder. This beautiful, native shrub likes cool, moist, rocky woods and blooms in April.  On steep slopes, where deer cannot reach to browse its twigs and foliage, red-berried elder thrives, bearing pyramidal clusters of berry-like drupes here by the sixteenth of June.  Our son, Dave, photographed chipmunks eating them, and I have watched rose-breasted grosbeaks gobbling them up.

chipmunk with red elderberries

chipmunk with red elderberries

The naturalist-writer Henry David Thoreau once wrote in Faith in a Seed, “If you would study the habits of birds; go where their food is, for example, if it is about the first of September, to the wild black-cherry trees, elder bushes, pokeweed…” The “elder” he meant is the common elder, those shrubs with flat-topped, clusters of small, white flowers that  are even more popular wildlife food.  By early September, those shrubs inside our three acre deer exclosure hung heavy with the umbels of purplish-black, berry-like drupes, and I flushed two ruffed grouse feeding on them.

Because common elder blooms long after the last frost — in late June and early July — it always produces a bumper crop of fruit.  “Many species of wild birds are attracted to the ‘banquet table’ which the common elder spreads in the fall,” William Carey Grimm wrote in The Book of Shrubs, such as gray catbirds, American robins, eastern bluebirds, northern cardinals, rose-breasted grosbeaks, eastern towhees, red-bellied woodpeckers, brown thrashers, and wood and hermit thrushes.  But because white-tailed deer browse on its twigs and foliage, the “common” elder has become uncommon in many areas. What the deer don’t eat, the sprayers of roadsides, drainers of swamps, loggers of stream sides, and abolishers of fencerows destroy, because this is a shrub of fencerows and waysides that flourishes in rich, moist soils along streams and swamps.  Those in our exclosure grow along its moist border, reaching a height of seven feet, while those that grew along our stream at the edge of our First Field wetland are gone because of deer browsing.

Wild black cherry trees are not deer food so we have many in all stages of growth including large trees. As early as the second of July, I flushed a brown thrasher fledgling that was eating wild black cherries from a medium-sized tree at the edge of First Field.  But it was mid-August before most of the cherries in the forest began to ripen.  Then they were loaded with fruit, some of which were green, some red, and some black.  Common grackle flocks quickly discovered them, and during an evening walk, my husband Bruce and I watched hundred of blackbirds stream over First Field and land on Sapsucker Ridge, their black bodies silhouetted against a golden sky as they ate cherries.

Cedar Waxwing in an ornamental cherry tree (photo by m. heart, Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license)

Cedar Waxwing in an ornamental cherry tree (photo by m. heart, Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license)

The following day, Tim Tyler, one of our hunter friends, was cutting out black locust trees on First Field when he discovered a cedar waxwing nest with four pale gray eggs spotted with brown in a locust tree.  He immediately stopped cutting there and left a small grove of six trees standing to protect the incipient waxwing family.

Thoreau wrote about finding a small black cherry tree in “full fruit” and hearing the “cherry-birds — their shrill and fine seringo — and robins… The cherry-birds and robins seem to know the locality of any wild cherry tree in town…” “Cherry-birds” are cedar waxwings. Had the waxwings waited for the cherry crop, which was unusually late because of a cold spring, before starting their family?  They do, after all, feed fruit to their nestlings. On the other hand, it could have been a second nesting.  Successful cedar waxwing couples often have second families, especially during good fruit-bearing years.

I kept an eye on the nest from a distance and always saw the female sitting on it.  But on the fifteenth of September, a cedar waxwing keened from the bare branch atop one of the tall black locusts above the nest site.  It looked around alertly, as male cedar waxwings do when they are on guard for their family. I peered at the nest through my binoculars and saw the female on the nest as usual.  Then she flew up toward the male and both of them flew off.  I took the opportunity to check their nest and found four nestlings.  One looked more advanced than the others did, but this sometimes happens with waxwings because often the female starts incubating before she lays all her eggs.

That was the only time I went near the nest, but I continued to watch it from a distance.  Soon the nestlings’ little crested heads were visible above the rim of the nest.  At least one parent was on guard in the tall locust whenever I walked past. Based on my calculations, that the female sits 12 days on her eggs before they start to hatch—a process that can take form 48 to 96 hours—and another 16 days as nestlings, I expected them to fledge around September 24.

Sure enough, on the morning of September 24, the cedar waxwing nest was empty except for a broken egg still holding smelly liquid and two squished wild black cherries.  The nest had been woven of wild grape stems, lined with dried weeds and plastered on the outside with fluffy white material.

In addition to cedar waxwings, I saw red-eyed vireos, blue jays, and scarlet tanagers harvesting wild black cherries, but the list of songbirds and other wildlife that feast on them is legion.  Thoreau mentioned gray catbirds, brown thrashers, eastern kingbirds, blue jays, red-headed woodpeckers, eastern bluebirds and northern cardinals as the most common birds that eat wild black cherries, in addition to robins and cedar waxwings.  Huge piles of bear scat studded with cherry pits on our trails testified to their popularity with bears. And the smaller animals, such as foxes, squirrels, and chipmunks, also ate the fruit.

A bower of pokeweed above Coyote Bench ripened too in September.  Pokeweed, known by many alternative names, for instance, pokeberry, poke, redweed, inkberry, and pigeon berry—can grow up to 12 feet tall in rich, moist soil.  Its long clusters of dark purple berries and large shiny seeds are popular with many songbirds, especially mourning doves, hence its name “pigeon berry.”  Philadelphia-based bird artist, Alexander Wilson, wrote back in the early nineteenth century that “the juice of the berries is of a beautiful crimson and they are eaten in such quantities by these birds [robins] that their whole stomachs are strongly tinged with the same red color.” I’ve watched eastern bluebirds harvesting the berries from pokeweed growing beside our house.

Solomons plume (AKA false Solomons seal) in berry

Solomon's plume (AKA false Solomon's seal) in berry

Several of our spring wildflowers flaunted autumn fruit also.  In mid-September, I walked down our road and found twin orange berries hanging from the end of yellow mandarin stems.  A series of twin blue berries dangled beneath Solomon’s seal stems, bright red clumps of jack-in-the-pulpit berries bent over from their weight, and a string of pinkish-red berries hung from the stem ends of false Solomon’s seal.  Wild spikenard displayed upright clusters of wine-colored berries.  Even the small beginnings of maple-leaved viburnum shrubs had a few dark, bluish-black clumps of berries.

But the wild nut crops were thin or non-existent, probably due, in part, to a cold spell in late spring.  No wonder wildlife was busily harvesting the September fruit crops. Because nature often gives bounteously with one hand and takes with another, the more diversity we have in wildflowers, shrubs, and trees in our forests, the more likely the animals and birds are to find enough to eat even if a major food fails.

All photos were taken by Dave in Plummer’s Hollow except where indicated otherwise.

Chasing Breeding Birds

“You know you’re getting old when you start repeating yourself,” I thought when I first heard about Pennsylvania’s Second Breeding Bird Atlas project.

“Been there, done that,” I said and immediately signed up last spring and became the “owner” of the two blocks that include our property. The same, yet different, is probably an apt description of the present effort. Instead of relying on paper reports of the breeding birds we observe in our blocks, we claim our blocks and send in our reports via the computer, although folks without access to the internet can still participate the “old-fashioned” way.

Having previously discovered that sending reports in electronically for Project Feederwatch was much easier than filling in the charts they sent by snail mail, I figured that it would be just as easy to do the same for my atlas records. Well, it wasn’t. For several months, I was so frustrated that I didn’t even try after my initial repeated rejection by the program. It turns out that other frustrated participants and the people in charge of the program more or less served as guinea pigs, and when I finally took a deep breath and tried again, with the help of my husband Bruce, it worked. This year should be a breeze now that I’ve conquered the electronic bogeyman.

The line between my two blocks runs across the top of First Field directly below the spruce grove so every time I took a walk, I kept two lists of the birds I heard and saw. My home block is 61c65. It includes the hollow, the former clearcut, and a fair portion of both Sapsucker and Laurel ridges. What I call the Far Field block–61c56–takes in the spruce grove, the road to the Far Field, the Far Field itself and beyond. These blocks are large, and I can’t hope to completely cover them, but anyone who makes observations in my blocks is also free to report them either electronically or to the Project Coordinator Robert S. Mulvihill at the Powdermill Nature Reserve.

The seventeen breeding codes for the Second Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas are similar to those of the first atlas, and I had no trouble using them. For instance, “X” means “possible,” and is defined as “an individual of a species seen or heard in suitable nesting habitat within safe dates, but not exhibiting any of the breeding behaviors described in” the other categories.

Initially, all my bird observations fell into the “possible” category–69 species in my home block (officially Tyrone 5) and 43 species in the Far Field block (officially Tipton 6). Many remained there throughout the season, but day by day some of the “possibles” became “probables” and even “confirmed” breeding birds.

Because I know my territory well, walk the trails every day, and have, over the years, learned the songs and calls of all the birds that live here, compiling the “probables” was easy. Confirming them was harder because I had to see an adult bird carrying nesting material, food, or fecal sac, observe nest-building, watch a distraction display such as a ruffed grouse feigning an injury, find a recently fledged young, or a nest with eggs or young, or see an adult feeding fledged young. All such discoveries were serendipitous as far as I was concerned.

Yard birds in my home block were particularly easy. One family of eastern phoebes plastered their nest beneath the eaves of our springhouse and another built theirs on top of one of the porticos on our veranda. The springhouse nest, filled with five eggs, was a source of wonder to our four-year-old great niece Morgan visiting from New Jersey. Later, when our nephew Patrick visited, that same nest contained four young phoebes and a huge young cowbird. The cowbird fluttered off the nest and on to the ground when Patrick appeared. He was distressed and wanted to return it to the nest, but I explained to him that it would take more than its share of food from its unwitting foster parents and deprive its foster siblings of food. Nevertheless, we later found that it was strong enough to fly back into the nest. Still, those phoebes did fledge successfully on June 1.

The veranda phoebe nest allowed our visiting granddaughter Eva to watch the parents feeding the young from our upstairs hall window. That family also fledged successfully.

During Eva’s visit in late May and early June, she and our son Dave also discovered an eastern towhee nest with eggs in a barberry bush, and she and our son Steve discovered a turkey sitting on her nest at the base of a beech tree near our road.

Best of all, from Eva’s point of view, was the last walk we took before she went home to Mississippi. As we started down First Field, a hen turkey jumped up from the tall grass a couple feet in front of Eva. She was so startled she screamed and saw one week-old chick run. The mother hen, clucking loudly, walked slowly away, and Eva, entranced by her seeming tameness, followed her on to the Laurel Ridge Trail. Eventually, I persuaded her to leave so the mother could return to her hidden chicks.

I made my own discoveries almost every day in May, June, and early July. On May 16, I stopped to rest on a log beside Greenbrier Trail and was continually scolded by a female hooded warbler. After a while she “showed” me her nest. She landed on it, inside a barberry hedge, moved around, and then flew off. I checked it and found no eggs, but on June 2 she was sitting tightly on it.

Another bird that “showed” me her nest was the Acadian flycatcher. As I walked up the road that same June 2, an Acadian flycatcher scolded. Knowing that they often like to build their nests near the tip of a beech tree limb, I scanned all the small beech trees and couldn’t see a nest. It turned out to be suspended from the branch of a witch hazel tree overhanging the road.

One bird that did not show me its nest was the sharp-shinned hawk. Yet I suspected, as early as April 22 when a sharpie flew out from the Norway spruce grove, landed nearby, and emitted its high-pitched “creer-creer” call, that a pair was nesting there. Still, I played a cat-and-mouse game, mostly with the male, throughout the spring.

But on July 6, as I approached the grove, the male flew out, landed in a nearby black locust tree, and called “creer-creer-creer.” Then, the female suddenly flew from the vicinity where I thought I had found a nest back in May. She too called but disappeared over the hill while the male continued “creering” and flying above me.

Sharpies are so secretive during nesting that little is known of their nesting life. I never saw a sign of life in what I though was their nest built in a dense, double-spired spruce tree. Yet every time I approached the spruce grove, the male would either fly out and call or he would be sitting on the same black locust tree limb at the back of the grove. This spot provided a view of all possible predators including the female red-tailed hawk I saw him chase away on June 6. He looked like the proverbial bee chasing a bear, but even though she seemed to shrug off his repeated diving, she eventually disappeared over Laurel Ridge.

Finally, on July 9, I had my proof. The male sharpie flew over and called as I emerged on the far side of the spruce grove. I heard another, lower pitched call, coming from the deciduous forest near the grove, and then an immature sharpie landed and called “wheep-wheep-wheep” directly above me.

Throughout the month I heard and often saw young sharpies crying “wheep-wheep-wheep” and their parents answering “kik-kik-kik.” Sometimes they flew and called on the ridges and even near our house. The “wheeping” calls of the young sharpies continued into mid-August and several times I saw two together. There may have been more–sharpies average four to five young–but I never saw them.

Although the sharpie nesting was the highlight of my 2004 Breeding Bird Atlas “work,” I did have other exciting confirmations. On June 20, in the late afternoon, cedar waxwings flew continuously to one black walnut tree branch, half-hidden by leaves, and then down into the yard. It looked as if they were gathering either food or nesting material. In early evening, one flew down in front of me to gather something and then flew up to the tree branch where another waxwing was moving around. I thought I could see a nest on the branch, but I wasn’t certain.

Then, on July 13, while sitting on our veranda, I heard scolding calls and saw an adult cedar waxwing perched on our clothesline that repeatedly dove down into the tall grass. I rushed up to look and there sat a small, grayish-brown, cedar waxwing fledgling sporting a white stripe near its eye, a tiny crest, and the yellow stripe on its tail. Both parents dove at me when I tried to pick it up and put it in shrubbery so I left them to solve their own problems.

In addition to the young cedar waxwing, I also saw an adult American kestrel with two immatures perched on our electric wire and a fledgling Carolina wren in our lilac bush.

Baltimore orioles suspended their nest from a black walnut branch that overhangs our driveway; black-capped chickadees nested in an old fencepost near the barn; and gray catbirds built their nest in a thicket of forsythia. I watched a black-throated green warbler gather nesting materials along Greenbrier Trail, a field sparrow doing the same in First Field, and a female wood thrush, accompanied by a male, collecting dead leaves and dried grasses for a late nesting on July 6.

Several birds also performed distraction displays. Along Black Gum Trail one morning, I heard scolding and walked off the trail and “pished.” A blue-headed vireo dove at my head and barely missed me. I couldn’t find the nest but as soon as I walked away he resumed his singing. A histrionic ovenbird blundered around in the underbrush as if it was drunk, bumping into shrubs, and then flew up and down. A Louisiana waterthrush, beside our stream, a worm-eating warbler on the Black Gum Trail, and a brown thrasher, at the edge of the woods, also distraction displayed.

I even managed to watch birds gathering food for their young. Most notable were a male scarlet tanager at the edge of the Far Field Road and a yellow-billed cuckoo at the edge of the Far Field.

I had my disappointments though. A cerulean warbler sang in our yard, as one had the previous year, throughout June. So too did one at the Far Field. Yet they remained on the “possible” list. I would like to have confirmed them because they are, along with several other species I confirmed in my blocks–Louisiana waterthrush, black-throated green warbler, sharp-shinned hawk, wood thrush, and worm-eating warbler–of “general conservation interest” to the Atlas. None of my birds made the higher categories–“regional rarity” or “statewide rarity.” In past years we have had at least two “regional rarities” nesting here–golden-crowned kinglet and winter wren–but not last year.

Still, the quest for breeding birds adds a lot of interest to my daily walks in late spring and early summer and makes me more aware of what is going on in the avian world. And there is always the chance that I’ll discover some of those rarities.

Waxwing Winter

On a catch-your-breath cold morning in mid-January, I walked for a mile in silence. Only when I reached Coyote Bench did the forest come alive with music and color. A flock of cedar waxwings, whistling while they worked, harvested wild grapes from vines directly above my head.

They look like perfect ladies and gentlemen in their sleek, unruffled, reddish-brown coats, accented by their black masks and crested heads. Not a feather is out of place. Their gray tails banded in yellow, wax-like red tips on their secondary wing feathers, and golden bellies add to their overall handsome appearance.

Juveniles, on the other hand, look slightly disheveled, as I discovered last November when I watched a flock of 21 adults and a juvenile near Coyote Bench. A few of the adults fed on wild grapes then, but most flew into a nearby tree and sat quietly as if they, like me, were absorbing the sunlight, their breasts pointing toward the sun while they groomed themselves. The juvenile, which remained on the outskirts of the flock, had no discernible crest or red wing tips and its breast and back was speckled with reddish-brown, but already it possessed the serious demeanor of the adults.

Of course, neither adults nor juveniles appear dignified when they are drunk. According to a Massachusetts witness back in the nineteenth century, cedar waxwings eating fermented black cherry fruits “looked like their feathers were brushed the wrong way…some tumbled to the ground with outspread wings and attempted to run away. Still others tottered on the branches with wings continuously flapping, as though for balance.” Furthermore, they “kept up a continual hissing noise, such as snakes might do.”

Three reports from California in the mid-twentieth century were even more startling. At least 42 cedar waxwings from a flock of 200 died in Los Angeles after stuffing themselves with the fermented fruit of the ornamental date palm. That same palm species killed cedar waxwings in Bakersfield and so did mulberries which they had eaten. According to H. Elliott McClure, after feeding on a mulberry bush, a cedar waxwing “dropped to the ground, flopped over, spun around and died in about 30 seconds.” The victims of both the palm and mulberry had inflamed intestines, enlarged blood vessels, and a blotchy liver, he said.

Many more accounts of “drunken” cedar waxwings and other birds have been recorded by casual observers, but late in the twentieth century the toxicologists weighed in when several cedar waxwings fell from a rooftop after eating over wintered hawthorn fruits in central Indiana and died. Although the birds were technically drunk, the toxicologists reported, they died from their fall, not from alcohol poisoning. Unlike humans, such mishaps are due to their preference for fruit, not alcohol.

In fact, fruit makes up 84% of the cedar waxwings’ diet. Because they are the primary consumers and dispersers of cedar or juniper berries, they were named cedar waxwings. They have also been nicknamed “cedar-birds” as well as “cherry-birds” in recognition of their fondness for wild black cherries. We don’t have juniper shrubs on our mountain but we have many mature wild black cherry trees. As soon as the cherries ripen in mid-August, I hear their high-pitched, whistling calls as they feed, hidden in the lush canopy above me.

Although they may be present at any time of the year, I think of them primarily as late fall and winter birds when they eat the frozen, dried fruits of whatever remains–Japanese barberries, Japanese privet berries, multiflora rosehips, wild apples, Hercules’ club berries, and the ever-popular wild grapes. Last autumn I was worried when I noticed that the wild grape crop was sparse. But throughout much of the winter, I was surprised at how adept they were at finding every last wild grape.

I especially treasure the memory of a brilliant November afternoon when dozens and dozens of waxwings ate wild grapes from vines draped high in the trees in our deer exclosure. A couple European starlings and American robins briefly joined in, but it was mostly a cedar waxwing extravaganza as one or another flung itself skyward almost as an ode to joy before sailing down to pluck more grapes. Lighting up like torches in the slanting sunlight, their golden tail bands flashing, they brightened the drab gray overstory of the leafless woods.

After that, I saw them almost every day somewhere on the mountain and in mid-December on my Christmas Bird Count I found a flock of 31 cedar waxwings at the Far Field and another 50 in our 10-year-old regenerating forest.

By February not much was left of the wild grape crop so the waxwings supplemented the grapes with multiflora rosehips in the cut-over woods and frozen wild apples in our yard. But the most amazing view I had of cedar waxwings last winter was on Penn State’s University Park campus below the Hub where a row of Callery pears is planted. The small trees were covered with hundreds of waxwings that didn’t budge as I walked past. No one else seemed aware of these lovely birds only a few feet away even though they continually swooped in and out at eye level, whistling their keening calls.

Their calls are an important device for keeping the flock together, especially when they suddenly take off on long flights to another fruit source. Their preference for fruit, in turn, dictates their flocking, nomadic life style. Throughout the year they move from fruit source to fruit source and delay breeding until summer when seasonal fruits are abundant. They have no concept of defending a territory. When they breed, they nest in loose clusters and continue to congregate in flocks at fruit crops away from their nesting areas.

But each couple is monogamous from spring until late summer and develops strong pair bonds by performing what ornithologists call the “courtship dance” or “courtship-hopping.” Usually the male approaches the perched female with a small item such as a fruit or insect in his bill and hops sideways to her as he gives her his “gift.” She, in turn, hops away and then back and returns his “gift.” Again he hops away, often bowing, hops back and the “gift-giving” back and forth is repeated as often 12 times. After the proverbial “billing and cooing,” they copulate.

Cedar waxwings judge each other’s age and suitability by the number and size of the red tips on their wings. They don’t engage in May and September relationships–older females mate with older males and immature males with immature females. After a prolonged courtship (in bird terms), nest-selection and then building begins in early to late June. Although the female seems to choose the nest site, usually at the edge of a wooded area and preferably in a fruit orchard or young pine plantation near other waxwing nests, they first fly from potential site to potential site and at each one, she perches in the fork of the tree or shrub and makes “nest-shaping” motions.

Both gather the nearest available nest materials, but she builds the open cup nest in trees and shrubs as low as three feet and as high as 50 feet from the ground. Then she lays 4 to 5 pale blue or blue-gray eggs splotched with black and gray and incubates them for 12 days. During that time, the male feeds her. He also guards her and her nest from a nearby high perch.

Once the eggs hatch, she broods the naked young while he brings mostly insect food to them for the first three days. Then he adds fruit to their diet. By the time they reach fledging age (15 days), they are on an almost wholly fruit diet. If they raise a second brood, the male does the fledgling feeding for a week or more. But the youngsters also form into small flocks with neighboring youngsters as soon as four days after fledging.

Unlike many North American songbirds, cedar waxwings are thriving and even moving into new areas. For instance, here in Pennsylvania cedar waxwing numbers tripled from 1965 to 1990. Scientists hypothesize that such increases are due to an abundance of edge habitat which favors the survival of fruit-bearing trees and shrubs. Then too, more and more people in rural and suburban areas are planting both native and non-native fruit-bearing shrubs and trees for themselves and wildlife.

On the other hand, such plantings along busy highways can be lethal to cedar waxwings. At least two reports–one in Texas and another in Virginia–documented the death of hundreds of cedar waxwings trying to feed on the fruit of silverberry (Eleagnus pungens). The slaughter by car near Richmond, Virginia was particularly high. During the spring of 2001 more than 1,600 cedar waxwings were killed as they flew through heavy traffic to feed on the fruit.

Because of their love for fruit and for infestations of insects, which they often catch on the wing after flying from a perch as flycatchers do, they are also victims of pesticide poisoning. In British Columbia, 52 waxwings died and 27 were partially paralyzed after feeding in an orchard that had been sprayed with parathion and in Nevada four died from Sevin and Diazinon that had been sprayed to control elm leaf beetles. Wild threats to cedar waxwings include the usual suspects–sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks and merlins. Near nests, cedar waxwings dive at blue jays, common grackles, and house wrens, all of which may prey on eggs and nestlings.

Even though cedar waxwings are common here during the winter, wandering flocks can be found almost anywhere in North and even Central America. For example, of the many cedar waxwings banded at Powdermill Nature Reserve, near Ligonier, Pennsylvania, six were recovered in Mexico and one in Guatemala.

Cedar waxwings are the most congenial of birds and I am happy that at least a couple flocks usually spend the fall and winter on our mountain, seemingly undeterred by snow and cold. But I have yet to see what naturalist William Brewster once reported. One first of March he saw members of a large flock of waxwings “chasing and capturing whirling snowflakes, at which they launched out in quick succession from the upper branches of a tall elm.” Maybe it is waxwings, not juncos, that should be called “snow birds.”