Of Birds and Berries

Posted Oct. 11, 2009, at 7:38 p.m.

The cedar waxwing is a lovely bird, with its silky plumage crested head, pale yellow belly, and bright yellow-tipped tail, and its high-pitched trilled whistle. And the mountain ash has those bright red berries that normally last all winter.

But, as Bud and Gail Carr noticed last week, the birds eat the berries. As the summer residents of Little Cranberry Isle looked out at their beautiful mountain ash last week, scores and maybe hundreds of waxwings zeroed in on the tree and in a few moments devoured all of the berries. This week, they came back and ate the rest.

So does that mean that the two natural beauties are in conflict? Not exactly, it turns out. A few days before, the Carrs had had an earlier experience with waxwings and berries. A waxwing, seeing a reflection of the mountain ash berries in their big side window, hurled itself against the glass and fell, unconscious, to the porch floor. Bud held it carefully as it roused itself, recovered and flew off. But before it departed, it excreted some half-digested mountain ash berries into his palm.

The point is that the birds eat the berries, fly away, and deposit them in their droppings over a wide range. This accounts for the many mountain ash trees that sprout up unexpectedly almost anywhere.

Bob Duchesne, a retired Maine broadcaster who now leads birding groups as founder of the Maine Birding Trail, said in an e-mail: “Wintering cedar waxwings are highly nomadic. If the berry crop is good, tens of thousands will winter over in Maine, joined by their equally nomadic cousins, Bohemian waxwings, which come in from their breeding areas in central and western Canada.” They may go south but often return in the dead of winter if the fruit is soft and ripe.

Mr. Duchesne recalls that when he was in elementary school he became fascinated with the cedar waxwings feeding on mountain ash berries outside the city library window. He says that helped stir his interest in birds. He said: “I assume that waxwings disperse the seeds of the mountain ash. Thus, both species help each other.”

An encyclopedia entry says that the cedar waxwing “is one of the most frugivorous birds in North America.” In case that word is unfamiliar, it means fruit-eating.

As for those mountain ash berries, accounts vary. One says, “They are sour, bitter and of a disagreeable flavor.” But a more accurate report calls the fruit “a favorite food of birds” and adds: “A delicious jelly is made from the berries, which is excellent with cold game or wild fowl.”

How pleasant it is to consider how the waxwings and mountain ash berries work together, even though the birds sometimes may deprive us of that tasty jelly.

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