A bird’s conception of manners

Often they suddenly wheel as if at command and plunge swiftly downward, alight­ing in a compact band on the top of some leafless tree.

Birds of America, T. Gilbert Pearson, ed., 1936
Cedar waxwings

This is just beautiful, don’t you think?


If birds have no conception of manners, how does it happen that half a dozen Cedar Wax­wings, sitting close together on a limb–which they often do–will pass a cherry along from one to another, down to the end of the line and back again, none of the birds making the slightest attempt to eat even part of the fruit? This little episode has been witnessed and re­ported by more than one thoroughly responsible observer of birds. What does it mean? If not politeness and generosity, then what? Mr. For­bush thinks the birds do it only when they are satiated; but how could he be sure of that condi­tion? Obviously not unless he killed all of the birds and examined their stomach , which of course, nothing could induce him to do. It would be a sorry way to prove courtesy and kindness, and wouldn’t prove anything after all. For if the bird had no room for another cherry, why didn’t it simply drop the fruit instead of passing it along? Let the bird psychologists ponder these questions; for the bird-lover the answer is obvious. Besides, he will have observed many other evidences of a gentle and affectionate disposition in these beautiful creatures.

“Who can describe the marvelous beauty and elegance of this bird?’ asks Mr. Forbush in an Educational Leaflet written for the National Association of Audubon Societies. ‘What other is dressed in a robe of such delicate and silky texture? Those shades of blending beauty, velvety black, brightening into fawn, melting browns, shifting saffrons, quaker drabs, pale blue, and slate with trimmings of white and golden yellow, and the little red appendages on the wing, not found in any other family of birds–all, combined with its graceful form, give the bird an appearance of elegance and distinc­tion peculiarly its own. Its mobile, erectile crest expresses every emotion. When lying loose and low upon the head, it signifies ease and comfort. Excitement or surprise erect it at once, and in fear it is pressed flat.

“In 1908, some fruit-growers in Vermont introduced into the Assembly a, bill framed to allow them to shoot Cedar Wax wings. This bill was pushed with such vigor that it passed the House in spite of all the arguments that could be advanced regarding the usefulness of the birds. In the Senate, however, these argu­ments were dropped, and the senators were shown mounted specimens of the bird. That was enough; its beauty conquered and the bill was defeated.”

“Like some other plump and well-fed person­ages,” continues Mr. Forbush, “the Cedar Wax­wing is good-natured, happy, tender-hearted, affectionate and blessed with a good disposition. It is fond of good company. When the nesting-­season is past, each harmonious little family joins with others until the flock may number from thirty to sixty individuals. They fly in close order, and keep well together through the winter and spring until the nesting-season again arrives. Their manner of flight is rarely sur­passed. Often they suddenly wheel as if at command and plunge swiftly downward, alight­ing in a compact band on the top of some leafless tree. They roam over the country like the Pas­senger Pigeon, never stopping long except where food is abundant. When hunting for caterpillars in the trees, they sometimes climb about like little Parrots. They often show their affectionate disposition by ‘billing,’ and by dressing one another’s plumage as they sit in a row.”

The Waxwings well illustrate the rule (to which, however, there are a few exceptions) that birds with conspicuous or strikingly beautiful plumage are rarely good singers, for their vocal capacities are limited to a faint sibilant note uttered both when the bird is in flight and at rest. Mr. Brewster records hearing the bird utter a series of loud, full notes, resembling those of the Tree Swallow, but these certainly are not common.

The Bohemian Waxwing is another beautiful member of this family, and has habits and a disposition similar to the Cedar Bird. It is com­paratively rare, however, as it occurs only in the upper Mississippi valley and some of the moun­tain States and is infrequently seen at or near the Atlantic coast. GEORGE GLADDEN.