Waxwings in Winter

A special gift of color found on a drab, gray landscape. // Illustration by Glenn Wolff
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Winter Waxwings by Glenn Wolff

One day in early February last winter, Gail and I decided we needed to get out of the house, so we went for a drive. It was the height of cabin-fever season, and we were a little starved for color and variety. At the last moment, we grabbed our binoculars and a camera in case we ran across any interesting birds. We didn’t expect to. During midwinter in Michigan, the bird palette usually is limited.

We were on our way home after exploring the ice floes piled on the shore of Lake Michigan when we noticed a flock of birds flying in and out of trees beside the road. There was something unusual about them, so we wheeled into the driveway of a Baptist church next door and stepped outside to take a look.

What we saw was the birding highlight of the year. In the tops of the maples and other trees on both sides of the road and especially in the big shade trees above the cemetery were flocks of cedar and bohemian waxwings. Hundreds of them. We couldn’t have been more surprised. Cedar waxwings are among our favorite songbirds, but we had never seen a bohemian. They’re common across northern Canada and can be found in the U.P. but are quite rare in the Lower Peninsula. The flocks were about evenly divided between the two species, with perhaps more bohemians than cedars. Many were feeding rather ferociously on leaf buds in the maples and red berries in shrubs along the road.

The buttery yellow and cream bellies of the cedar waxwings and the rufous-colored undertail coverts of the bohemians — as if they’d sat in raspberry juice — were delicious to our famished eyes.

When we told our birder friends about it, they were surprised. Most of them had never seen a bohemian waxwing in the Lower Peninsula.

Why did it thrill us? What is it about encountering unusual wildlife that electrifies us? In winter, it might be partly relief from routine. The buttery yellow and cream bellies of the cedar waxwings and the rufous-colored undertail coverts of the bohemians — as if they’d sat in raspberry juice — were delicious to our famished eyes. I thought of a passage in Willa Cather’s novel “My Ántonia”: “In the winter bleakness a hunger for color came over people, like the Laplander’s craving for fats and sugar. Without knowing why, we used to linger on the sidewalk outside the church when the lamps were lighted early for choir practice or prayer meeting, shivering and talking until our feet were like lumps of ice. The crude reds and greens and blues of that colored glass held us there…”

Biologists say we’re hardwired to notice the unusual. It’s how we survived for tens of thousands of years. We detected the twitch of a saber-toothed cat’s ear through the underbrush and knew it meant danger. We saw a flash of red berries in the distance and knew it meant food.

That gray winter day, Gail and I were famished for novelty. When it came to us like a gift from a stranger, we did what any sensible person would do. We tucked in and enjoyed the feast.


Writer Jerry Dennis and artist Glenn Wolff have been collaborating on books that celebrate the diversity of nature for nearly 30 years. See what they’re up to at bigmaplepress.com

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