There are all sorts of harbingers of Christmas. When I was little it was the appearance of Santa Claus at the tail end of the New York Macy's Parade. Now it is the sight of Bohemian waxwings.
Right on time, just a few days ago, I saw huge numbers of these birds returning to roost in a few big, old spruce trees growing down the street. These are the Bohemian waxwings you've seen in past winters: Gray, robin- sized birds with yellow and white tips on their wings, red under their tales, wearing a black and red eye mask and sporting a spiffy, feather tuft.
It's a fancy bird, and avid birders who live in the south crave this one for their life lists. It is a rare sighting where it stays ever-warm, however. Here even the non-birder is used to Alfred Hitchcockian-size flocks of wild, twitting birds descending into a neighborhood and attacking mountain ash tree after mountain ash tree, devouring every berry in sight. Some of these birds don't even wait to land, but hover in the air as they strip a berry off a tree and gulp it down.
Bohemian waxwings have eaten their weight in mountain ash berries every day for lots of winters around here, and it is quite a sight to see them all vector home after their daylong, fruit feast. One moment the sky is clear and the next a huge school of birds swims overheard, each bird abruptly veering to the left and to the right at breakneck speeds without altering the distance between its neighbors. Several hundred flit about each tree, one by one getting settled for the night.
I have no idea if flocks of these birds have been in Southcentral Alaska since time began. I do know their numbers increase throughout the subarctic whenever there is an expansion of fruit available during the winter. While they will eat almost any fruit, from crab apples to birch seeds, and will even come to a feeder every now and then, it is the mountain ash berry for which the Bohemian waxwing pines.
Mountain ashes have been promoted as fast growing, stone hardy trees with winter interest, namely their berry bunches. (I think they are pomes, not real berries, but that is not part of the story.) These are red and often attractively capped with snow by the time Christmas rolls along. As communities in the north grow, they are used as a favorite landscape tree, for the red and orange leaves and for the red berries in the winter.
What needs to be added is the ability to attract colorful, interesting, non-destructive, migratory wildlife to an area. Trust me, plant a community full of mountain ash trees in the north and the Bohemian waxwings will come.
In our case, the popularity of mountain ash trees is great. We even use them as street trees. Their ability to thrive here has been the single cause of the great growth of the flock or flocks of Bohemian waxwings and their sole reason to migrate here every Christmas.
Most birds don't eat entire fruits. They spit out the seeds and pits. Not so the Bohemian waxwing. It all goes down.
As a result, there is an almost symbiotic relationship between the waxwing and the ash as the birds take seeds to places they would not be able to otherwise go, increasing the range and numbers of the trees and supporting a growing population of waxwings.
Each breeding pair, incidentally, produces about five eggs a year, usually in June. They catch flying insects for food in the summer months.
The reason Bohemian waxwings forage in such large flocks is for the safety in the numbers. In short, the greater number of fellow birds in the tree not paying attention as they eat, the lower the chances any one of them will be eaten by their enemies, who know their prey can't resist a berry. Judging from the size of the flocks we see starting at Christmas, it is obviously a successful trick.
There are stories of these birds getting drunk on fermented berries. I suppose this could be true, but I can't imagine them surviving what with the precision flying needed to move around like waxwings.
Still they do look happy as they denude a mountain ash tree of its fruits. Apparently, when going through the mating routine, a pair will pass one of these red mountain ash berry between beaks without gulping it down as would be the norm. Ah, as if love was too much of a fruit to have more.
Anyhow the Bohemian waxwings are back again this year and right along with them is Christmas season.
So happy holidays to you all. May you have Bohemian waxwings in your life at all times. May you be more like them: Eat lots of your favorite fruit, share some with those close to you, be fruitful yourself and most important, surround yourself with lots of friends.
Jeff Lowenfels is a member of the Garden Writers Hall of Fame. You can reach him at home.gci.net/~jeff/gardener or by joining the "Garden Party" radio show from 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays on KBYR AM-700.