Thirty years ago, I discovered the joy of drinking beer and smoking pot. My buddies and I played a smoke a joint-drink a beer game that involved alternating those two activities until we were what was referred to as “fucked up.” On a Friday or Saturday night when I wasn’t toiling for minimum wage in the K-Mart Sporting Goods Department, I’d call one of my friends on the telephone and say, “hey, let’s get fucked up!” One afternoon he enthusiastically returned the favor. Unfortunately, it led to an awkward moment–my mom was the one who had answered the phone.
If we had known about the habits of the cedar waxwing, perhaps we would have used a different expression for getting intoxicated until we were “fucked up.” Cedar waxwings are fruit-eating birds that on occasion gorge themselves on fermented fruit, causing them to become drunk as the following youtube link shows.
I suppose saying, “let’s get as a drunk as a cedar waxwing,” could have become a catchphrase among my old gang, sort of like the codewords we had for drug deals we made over the phone in case the DEA had our lines bugged. We thought it was cool and hip to become intoxicated, but we were only doing something that a dumb bird had likely been engaged in for over a million years before Homo Sapiens even evolved.
I’m aware of only one Pleistocene fossil locality yielding remains of cedar waxwings. The La Brea tarpits are famous as the source for hundreds of dire wolf, saber-tooth, and mammoth fossils, but not many people know that just about every extant North American bird along with a number of extinct species left individuals trapped in the tarpits at some time over a period of 40,000 years. Cedar waxwings can be included in this massive bird checklist. Suitable habitats for cedar waxwings during the Pleistocene likely varied in abundance, and the population fluctuated accordingly. Fruit-bearing bushes and trees thrived in the open spaces common during most climate phases.
Cedar waxwing eating a fruit that I can’t identify. They often pass fruit back and forth between themselves when they aren’t gorging on them.
The gluttony of cedar waxwings is an adaptation that helps them maintain their highly migratory habits. They need energy from the fat they accumulate by gorging on sugary fruits such as cherries, blackberries, rasberries, mulberries, pokeberries, mountain ash, buckthorn, hawthorne, privet, cranberry, blueberry, sassafras, dogwood, mistletoe, tupelo, and juniper/cedar. Their preference for the latter fruit explains why they’re known as cedar waxwings. They’re important seed dispersers of these species as well, widely depositing the seeds in their dung. They also eat insects, especially beetles, moths, and flies. They catch them on the wing much like flycatchers.
At least half of their modern breeding grounds were under glacial ice during the Last Glacial Maximum. Today, they breed no further south than north Georgia, but they do winter in Mexico and Cuba. Ice Age cedar waxwings may have bred farther south.
I’ve only seen cedar waxwings twice in my life. Except for when they’re nesting, these are highly transitory birds that take advantage of locally abundant berry producing plants. If not for this mobility, they would outstrip food supplies and starve. I saw a flock of cedar waxwings when I lived in Ohio in 1970. They came, they ate all the rotted crabapples off our backyard tree in late winter, and they left. Last week, I witnessed cedar waxwings again. They flocked to my front yard, flying back and forth from the tree tops to the bushes and the ground. They have a remarkable habit of swerving together to and fro for seemingly no reason, but it’s probably an adapatation to confuse predators.