For the Birds Radio Program: Bohemian Waxwings
Last week when I drove down Arrowhead Road in Duluth, a flock of Bohemian Waxwings flew directly ahead of and above my car for over a quarter of a mile. I’m a stickler for speed limits, and apparently so are Bohemian Waxwings, because they flew precisely 30 miles per hour the whole way. Unfortunately, they don’t have as much respect for stop signs, and when I finally came to one, they kept going.
Sometimes people ask me how I can possibly identify a flock of birds while I’m driving. The truth is, some kinds of birds are simply easy to recognize in flight–and of course I never talk about birds that fly over if l don’t have the foggiest idea what they are. But waxwings are pretty easy–they’re starling-like in size and shape, with pointed, triangular wings and a rather short tail. A starling’s tail is notched while a waxwing’s is blunt-tipped, but that’s hard to see while driving–at least, while driving safely. There are plenty of more obvious differences–the wing linings of starlings are bright and silvery, contrasting with almost black bodies, while waxwings are more uniformly dusky. And starlings have a powerful, speedy flight, cruising along the fast track like torpedoes–waxwings swirl leisurely through the air like those of us who wend our way along the bicycle lane of life.
Bohemian Waxwings dress pretty much like true Minnesotans, with functional, well-insulated, dull gray plumage. Their soft trills are like understated folk music rather than the show-off arias of other songbirds, and their gentle, civilized manner is true Minnesotan, too. But their little crest gives them a jaunty air, and the tiny, ruby and topaz markings glittering on wing and tail betray their inner fire.
If someone’s trustworthiness can be gauged by how trusting he or she is, waxwings are trustworthy indeed. Few birds are as pleasant for rehabbers to deal with–they tame down almost immediately and easily settle for human companionship until they can return to their own kind. They make little sighing sounds when contentedly sitting on your shoulder, and it’s hard to match the warm, companionable feeling you get when one is so close. But if you do go around with a waxwing on your shoulder, make sure you have a washable towel there, too. Disney witches often go about with crows or ravens on their shoulders and somehow manage to get away with wearing unsullied black, but the end products of waxwing digestion, especially when they’ve been eating blueberries, can leave distinctive, and even permanent, reminders of those happy times together.