Party with Virginia natives

Published 9:04 pm Tuesday, March 31, 2015

By Susan and “Biff” Andrews

There was a wild party that started in our neighbor’s yard a couple of weeks ago.

The revelers come and go, chattering loudly, stuffing themselves on food, then taking off for a while, only to return to their overindulgence a short while later.

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The last time we noticed the party was Easter Sunday 2008. It was such a spectacle that we noted the date. Well, the gang’s back, and they’re at it again this year, just in time to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

This raucous group of partiers is a flock of more than 100 small birds that have descended en masse on the neighbor’s holly tree, stripping it bare of any berries. The tree was loaded this year, so it has taken them a few visits to get the job done. It took only an hour or so in 2008.

This year, they perched high above in the tall trees by the lake and swooped down to the holly in little groups of about 30 at a time. What caught our attention was the holly tree shaking, aquiver with activity.

When we first noticed, we thought ordinary little birds were in the tree. Then we saw they had a crest like a cardinal, only longer, but these birds weren’t red. So, out came the binoculars for a closer inspection and the Big Book of Birds for a positive identification.

Light brown color … silky sheen … buff to pale yellow on the breast … long crest on the head … black stripe over the eyes that looks like Cleopatra gone wild with the eye liner … and bright yellow on the tip of the tail. Big Book says … Cedar waxwing.

What we thought was a flock of ordinary birds turned out to be spectacular birds. Cedar waxwing (bombycilla cedrorum) gets its name from the red coloring on the tip ends of the secondary feathers of the wing. It looks like little drops of red wax that you might see melting down a candle. They were moving so fast, the red was not visible. An upgrade on the binoculars would probably help with that.

Turns out that not all cedar waxwings have the red on the wings, and if they do, both males and females can have it. The red may be a result of maturity or have something to do with mate selection. Nobody really seems to know.

These party animals are very social birds. You will never see just one. They are always in flocks of 30 to 100 or so. They eat mainly fruit. They do eat insects during the summer and feed them to their young nestlings, but berries are the main course for the grown-ups.

Let’s see … 100 birds plus a few thousand holly berries. Could be a perfect storm for holly trees in our area this year.

One of the interesting habits of these birds is that they will sit in a row on a branch and pass berries from one bird’s beak to another until one bird finally eats the berry. Sometimes waxwing pairs will pass flower petals to each other during courtship. Pretty romantic!

They are not known for their romance, but they are known for their gluttony. Some have been reported to eat until they can’t fly; some get drunk and fall out of the trees from eating overly ripe berries.

Waxwings love just about any kind of berry — holly berries, cedar berries, mulberries, beauty berries, service berries. These are among the many berry-producing, Virginia native plant species that will attract these delightful birds to your yard.

That is pretty much the only way to attract them — that and birdbaths, as they are also attracted to water.

Provide these essentials and maybe the next “wild” party will be in your backyard.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at