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Birds Gone Wild

While devouring fermented berries, some cedar waxwings don’t know when to say when.

By Dan Oko

This is the tragic tale of a group of travelers who made a bad decision on a boozy winter night and froze to death in the cold pre-dawn hours, before reaching their desired destination. The travelers in question were a flock of about 50 cedar waxwings, a migrant bird species that is common in Texas through the winter into spring. They resemble small, dusky cardinals, typically measuring about 6-7 inches from head to tail, with brown-gray feathers, a small crest and a black mask. According to bird experts, cedar waxwing flocks can number in the thousands as they gather to fly to their breeding grounds in the Rocky Mountains and other northern locales. Like generations before them, this small band of birds had availed themselves of the fermented fruit of the holly-like yaupon bush, which produces a bright red berry, and in so doing essentially signed their own death warrant. Their bodies were discovered in March near the Department of Aging and Disability Services in Austin.

“It was pretty obvious what had happened,” says Doug McBride, a spokesman for the state Department of Health Services, who helped investigate the birds’ untimely demise. “The cedar waxwings had eaten these fermented berries, become inebriated, and in their drunken state it appears that they probably did not remember to fluff up their feathers and keep themselves warm.” McBride deemed the dead waxwings no threat to human health.

An avid birder, Dr. Peter Barnes, a Tyler physician, keeps track of bird sightings for the Texas Ornithological Society in the northeastern part of the state. Barnes has recorded live flocks of cedar waxwings numbering up to 2,000 birds, but despite the size of these gatherings, he says he does not believe the species has attained popularity by partying harder. “When it comes to birds that winter in Texas, cedar wax-wings are relatively colorful,” Barnes says, “and most birders just really do like seeing big flocks of birds.”

“It’s the berry eaters that we see mostly having these sorts of problems,” says TPWD ornithologist Clifford Shackelford, noting that fruit is crucial fuel for many migrants, including robins.

The habit of traveling in large flocks, combined with a tendency to fly at high speeds, adds up to more bad news for waxwings. Many intoxicated birds die from crashing into windows, says Anne Hobbs, a public information specialist with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. To protect drunken fliers, the Audubon Society recommends hanging netting over windows and planting shrubs close enough to buildings so that the birds can’t reach full speed.

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