The cedar waxwings swarmed the backyard this afternoon—at least a thousand of them. . . . Poor trees. They looked so patient in the snow, so resigned to being stripped of their color for the sake of the birds.
—Angela Pelster, “Les Oiseaux”
In 1908, a bill came before the Vermont legislature, “an act relating to the protection of fruit from the cedar waxwing.” The title was rather euphemistic: H.474 proposed protecting fruit by removing protection for the cedar waxwing, a fruit-loving common songbird with a gluttonous streak. Quite simply, the fruit growers wanted to shoot the birds, and they convinced the members of the House to pass the bill.
But then the bill reached the Senate. And just as the prosecution in a murder trial might show the jury moving, carefree photos of a victim taken at an earlier time, waxwing supporters brought in mounted specimens of the bird in question. The senators laid eyes on the birds—their bright beige bodies accented by red and yellow etchings, sleek black masks, crests—and dropped the bill just like that.
Or so we are told. The Internet is awash in regurgitations of this anecdote, which seems to trace back to Edward H. Forbush, an early twentieth-century ornithologist, who included it in a profile of the waxwing for Bird-Lore, a publication of the Audubon Society, a few years after the failure of the proposed bill. “[The bird’s] beauty conquered and the bill was defeated,” he asserts.
I’ve been reading about waxwings since I pulled in the driveway one hot day last summer and saw my housemate cupping a wounded bird in her hands. Its plumage was impeccable, but when she parted the mouse-colored softness on its back to inspect where her cat had gouged it, the wound looked deep.
As a birder, I think of myself as above the blinding allure of charismatically pretty colors; I’d gladly spend an afternoon chasing the drabbest of sparrows through a meadow for one good glimpse, if the species was rare enough or one I’d never seen. But before the waxwing fluttered away and flopped to the ground, before I turned away and went inside so as not to see the cat finish it off, we stood there in the driveway guiltily admiring the finer points of its plumage.
From a distance, a waxwing is a buffy brownish gray. Up close, this one’s beauty was subtle but exotic. The neutral tones melded exquisitely—the rose-beige back bleeding into a dove gray that verged on pale blue, accented by the namesake red waxy tips on the wing. The underbelly was pale and luminous, tinged with yellow. The tail looked dipped in bright yellow paint.
It seemed so alive, beating against her hand. It was probably just a product of the bold crest, the bandit-like black mask, outlined in white for a sophisticated, feminine effect, but the waxwing seemed defiant, as if it knew it was too exquisite to be meeting this fate. As if it was above being caught by a bored, well-fed housecat, as if there had been some mistake.
I imagine the senators in their staid New England chamber, gazing at the specimens—lifeless and stuffed, but still beautiful—looking at each other sheepishly, pulling their beards, saying, We had no idea.
• • •
Fruit growers were understandably less impressed by the birds’ handsome colors. Cedar waxwings gorge themselves on fruit; it makes up about 80 percent of their diet. Few North American birds eat so much fruit year-round. Waxwings can devour an entire crop of red cedar fruit in two days. They can swallow berries whole until they become immobilized, intoxicated. No one writes about the waxwing without mentioning this.
Forbush, who was effusive in his description of the cedar waxwing—“Who can describe the marvelous beauty and elegance of this bird?” he demanded to know. “What other is dressed in a robe of such delicate and silky texture?”—didn’t parse words when it came to their appetite. The waxwing “lives a wandering Bohemian life, intent on satisfying its healthy appetite,” he wrote, playing to a crowd who, on the heels of the Victorian era, did not yet find it objectionable to chastise or endorse animal species based on their supposed moral qualities.
Waxwings, he wrote in a 1929 bird guide, are “such gluttonous birds that they sometimes become so surfeited as to be unable to fly, and have been known to fall helpless on the ground. . . . Whether in such cases the victims are suffering from gluttony or from intoxication, caused by the fermented juices of over-ripe fruit, does not always appear.”
He includes an account sent to him by a friend who was just tickled to come upon a flock of waxwings that he deduced to be drunk on chokecherries. So “ravenously” were they gorging that their feathers were messed up and they seemed oblivious to the approaching onlookers, who scooped them up in their hats. “Their actions were very comical, for they were helpless. One fellow bobbed up and down even after we had secured him under my hat,” wrote Forbush’s friend. “Some tumbled to the ground where with outspread wings they attempted to run away; still others tottered on the branches with wings continually flapping, as though for balance.”
At that point, Prohibition was in full swing. Perhaps people envied the waxwings a little. All spring, Forbush wrote, they “loiter about with nothing on their minds and nothing to do but to eat and grow fat.”
• • •
If all of that appetite had been channeled toward the insect world, waxwings would have sat atop the highest moral pedestal imaginable, gluttony and dilly-dallying notwithstanding. That their appetite did sometimes cut this way, that they could tear through cankerworms with the same abandon as they did cherries, was a saving grace.
In the early twentieth century, before the barrage of synthetic pesticides hit the market in the wake of World War II, the battle lines had been drawn as such: pest insects versus everything else. In 1912, entomologists guessed that insect pests caused over 8 hundred million dollars in losses to agriculture yearly—around 20 billion in today’s terms. Writers at the time, such as H. F. Perkins, a zoologist, described apocalyptic scenarios in which “man . . . would be driven off the face of the earth” should insects be allowed to multiply unchecked. For the visual horror of his readers, C. D. Howe, the state ornithologist of Vermont, imagined sending a string of them, lined up side by side, into space, stretching beyond the moon, and the sun, and into the cold spaces beyond, reaching a star 250 light years away. “That will just about be the line of the 10 sextillion plant lice, the product of one pair . . . in a Vermont summer.”
“I could go on,” he threatens.
Suddenly, birds were heroes. (Perhaps not coincidentally, it was also around this time that bird-watching became a hobby; the Audubon Society was founded in 1905.) At the time of the cedar waxwing bill, scientists, bird-lovers, and even the US Department of Agriculture were putting forth economic arguments for the necessity of birds, declaring that agriculture couldn’t exist without them. If all birds suddenly disappeared, there would be “death and destruction and desolation upon the earth,” predicted one naturalist, who went on to describe the slow takeover of weeds and insects until no crops remained.
To prove that birds were worth dollars and cents to the farmer, scientists working for the US Biological Survey tore open the stomachs of thousands of birds to see what they were eating.
“[The scientists] will pick up a little scrap of a brown shiny thing and without an instant’s hesitation write down the correct name of the insect to which it belonged,” marveled Perkins, the zoologist. “They recognize . . . a little scrap of a wing, of an eye, a feeler, as belonging to a certain kind of insect.”
All bird species were suddenly standing trial. Most passed with flying colors, their diets insect-heavy. For instance, a meadowlark was worth twelve dollars a year to the farmer. Five thousand ants filled the gut of one flicker. Most birds were painted as hard-working and humble, such as the veery, which “contributes its share to the beneficial work of staying the superabundant tide of insect life.”
Howe wrote that birds “demand no wages. . . . These helpful workmen of ours do not go on strikes; they do not get drunk on Saturday night.”
The robin, while much-loved, lost points for its fruit habits. A thrasher compensated for some pilfering of fruit with a diet of over 60 percent insects. The catbird, less so: “The good it does . . . probably does not pay for the fruit it steals.” Still, the USDA most often encouraged a balanced attitude. Mockingbirds, catbirds, and thrashers were “usually desired in the vicinity of homes and even invited there for the sake of their songs.”
Only the hawks seriously struggled for favor. Of the Cooper’s hawk, which ate mostly poultry and songbirds, the USDA advised, “This destructive hawk, together with its two near relatives, should be destroyed by every possible means,” but they defended many other species of hawks for their good work keeping rodent populations down. C. D. Howe encouraged folks not to shoot a hawk on sight: “Our advice is to shoot only the hawks that you see actually taking your chickens.”
This, at the time, was an improvement.
From the stomach studies, people learned that even the birds they saw gorging on fruit had a much more varied diet, said Perkins:
One cannot tell by watching a bird what it is doing when one is not around. It may not be putting its best foot forward, just as we often do not. . . .
While the cedar waxwing may do much harm to cherry trees in one part of the state, he may be doing good in another part. I do not say that they do, but I say there is a possibility of it.
In the summer, I’ve often watched flocks of waxwings launching themselves over a body of water, flycatching for insects. Back and forth, they fill the trees; they take over the scene. If pressed to step into the anthropomorphic mindset of the early twentieth century, I’d say they appear downright exuberant. Oblivious. Intoxicated on something.
“Birds taken at such times,” wrote Forbush, “have been found crammed with insects to the very throat.”
Forbush, always the ardent advocate for birds, didn’t like that “large numbers of this lovely bird” were being shot by fruit-growers and hunters. He pointed out that cultivated cherries accounted for only 5 percent of the birds’ diets and suggested that “if the cherry grower, when planting an orchard, would first set out a row of soft early cherries or early mulberries around his orchard, and allow the birds to take the fruit from those trees, he might thereby save the main crop of later, harder, and more marketable fruit.”
An early twentieth-century report from Vermont’s Commissioner of Fisheries and Game concluded: “Its local name of ‘cherry bird’ indicates that it by no means disdains cultivated varieties. Fortunately the bulk of the fruit it takes consists of wild species. . . . While insects constitute only a comparatively small percentage of its diet, those eaten include some very destructive species such as scales and the dreaded elm beetle.”
• • •
Two years before H.474, you could see anger over the waxwings brewing. A similar bill came up to provide compensation for damages to crops and trees caused by deer and cedar waxwings. Newspapers called it a “humorous” and “breezy” debate. The waxwings were eventually cut from the bill, but it was their gluttonous habits that caused most of the levity. Robins, fellow fruit-lovers, came into the discussion, but they were defended “on the ground that they could eat cherries and not get drunk on them.” Another legislator piled on, saying those other birds “knew when they had enough.” Along with the damages, the waxwings, it was argued, became “drunk and disorderly by eating cherries.” Someone suggested the bill “be referred to the joint committee on temperance.”
According to Forbush, the 1908 bill, by contrast, 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.” The bill went through twists and turns in the House. At one point, it was killed, but the next day, someone made a motion to “reconsider” it. A week and a half later, it was “taken up as unfinished business” and passed 152–51. Unfinished business. It sounds like revenge.
“In the Senate, however, these arguments were dropped.” Forbush, normally so effusive, is rather tight-lipped about the drama; his account of it lasts for just a short paragraph.
The legislative journals, too, are very sparse, mostly just proving that H.474, “an act relating to the protection of fruit from the cedar waxwing,” indeed existed. There’s no mention of the senators folding because of the beauty lingering in dead specimens. But they rejected it a mere two days after receiving it; it’s clear there was no debate.
The newspapers are a bit more revealing about what happened when H.474 came before the lawmakers, but not by much. I learn that the proposed “protection of fruit” was not a wanton free-for-all, exactly; it would have let fruit growers petition for a license to shoot the waxwings during June and July, and required them to report back on the number of birds killed. Before the House passed it, one legislator objected on the grounds that, as a Burlington paper put it, the bill “would be opening the door to a general destruction of song birds.”
Again, I scour for details about that Senate hearing, but all I find is a terse reference to the bill being killed and the intriguing explanation, “It had not a single friend in the latter body.”
I call up the Vermont State House, but I’m told they don’t have records on bills that didn’t become laws.
• • •
My search through the newspapers did turn up something I hadn’t expected: clear evidence that in the first decade of the twentieth century, much of the general public was crazy about birds. Newspapers published articles like “Feathered Songsters Seen in the City This Spring” to share news of what was migrating through the area. There were bird-spotting contests for students, bird lectures, and a story about someone trying to raise waxwing babies jostled from their nest.
An article called “Bird Protection in Vermont” mentions new laws stemming from the formation of Audubon societies and attitudes “opposed to indiscriminate slaughter of birds.” People lured birds to their homes with birdhouses and food. Teachers “encouraged the placing of shelves outside the school windows for birds, who take their daily luncheons therefrom, to the pleasure and education of the children.”
Then, under “Local Gatherings,” just above a list of birds reported at the museum that month, I find this: “Mrs. A. Boucher invites the ladies to her millinery opening of pattern and ready-to-wear hats Thursday and Friday of this week. No cards.”
• • •
Nothing explained the rising interest in bird-watching better than the millinery trade. The slaughtering of herons and egrets by the thousands to adorn ladies’ hats had galvanized the formation of state Audubon societies, and then a national one in 1905. It wasn’t just herons and egrets; one ornithologist had walked down a Manhattan street and counted forty species of birds, stuffed and whole—all of them beautiful—decorating the fashion for sale in the windows. Other market hunting also took a toll. The waxwings, apparently quite tasty, had been hunted for food, especially and persistently in the South. Even so-called ornithologists thought they should freely go on shooting birds and collecting egg specimens.
Birds needed all the help they could get, but, left to the states, their protection was haphazard. Newly enacted laws protecting birds were being challenged. In the same year as H.474, two wardens protecting heron and egret rookeries in Florida were shot and killed by plume hunters.
Vermont presumably had better laws than most; hence the fruit-growers couldn’t just shoot the waxwings without first getting a bill passed. In the same week that the cedar waxwing was deemed too beautiful to kill, the first feasible migratory bird bill was introduced on a national level. It took another ten years before the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (with Great Britain and Canada) was finalized and signed into law, making it illegal to kill native migratory birds outside of specified hunting seasons. A hundred years later, it is still the law of the land.
• • •
A quick search of newspaper accounts reveals that waxwings still descend upon Vermont berry-growers in droves. “Farmers Withstand Rainy Spring, Bird Raids,” declares one headline. Farmers aren’t quite sure why they’re so aggressive this year.
• • •
A berry farmer in Burlington, wiped out by waxwings last year. A strawberry farmer who covers her fields with bird netting every evening and uncovers them every morning. “You’re not supposed to shoot them,” she says.
• • •
It is clear her husband had thought about it.
• • •
We cover and uncover. . . . We even untangle the trapped birds and let the varmints go.
• • •
I watch a video demonstration of a bird scare cannon that looks like an ambitious science fair project attached to a propane tank. It comes with a warning that it can cause ear damage and should not be operated near people.
The neighbors of a blueberry farmer in Richmond, Vermont, were so worn down by the cannon that they petitioned their Selectboard to stop the noise. The farmer also used bottle rockets and recordings of distressed birds. “What we try to do,” he explained, “is create an environment for the birds that would be like us trying to eat dinner while someone is watching a horror movie.”
• • •
“We want the berry farm to be successful; we want it to be there,” said one neighbor.
“The cannon puts us over the edge,” said another.
• • •
“We’re sorry,” said the farmer, “but I can’t wave my hands and snap my fingers and make the birds go away.”
• • •
Another farmer, in Braintree, got so fed up by the hordes of birds diving into his strawberries, he “took out a shotgun in mid-June, waited for the birds to sit in a line, and fired.”
• • •
Left their bodies on the ground, hoping to scare off their friends.
• • •
Authorities followed spent shotgun shells to find “five dead cedar waxwings and one dead chipping sparrow in the garden, and two more cedar waxwings under a tree in the front yard.”
“Nature, that’s my business,” the farmer—also a maple syrup producer—countered in self-defense. “I rely on trees, and trees rely on birds. They do a lot of good, pecking harmful insects. . . . I didn’t want to shoot them, but what am I going to do?”
• • •
I wake one morning to the pulsing riot of robins and go outside. Here in the Northeast, it is the warmest December on record; the earth is warm and damp, and it is raining. I feel surrounded by the robins. They are busy, chattering and even singing as they fly from tree to tree, like an uncoordinated orchestra moving through town. After berries, I suppose. I look for my waxwings; they should be here, too. Yes, I spy them, two dozen smudges festooning the bare branches of a single tree. Occasionally, one flies to a tree flaming with berries, calmly swallows a couple, then returns. I’m waiting for them to make a spectacle of themselves, but they don’t. They sit on the sidelines, quiet and still, unlike the robins. Still, they look sinister to me. I see the bandit in them, how at any moment they could swoop in from the sidelines and wipe you out. I can see how one could hate them.
I think of the farmer facing a potential $300 fine for each bird he shot. He had taken the advice of other berry growers, claimed he had “no idea that it was a federal violation to protect your garden.” Charges against him were dropped. What are seven waxwings in a horde of a thousand swarming one’s precious fruit? I’ve watched a 150 waxwings working at the edge of a winter field, sounding their high, thin, eager call amid the season’s quiet. It’s an unmusical sound, not even a proper song; a “high-pitched, lisping, sibilant monotone,” Forbush called it. But I love it. I listen for it. I delight when they burst blazing across the field; I can also see how their beauty would lose its charm, become irrelevant. Passenger pigeons were beautiful, too, shimmering in mauve iridescence, but that isn’t what people thought of first when the pigeons blacked out the skies for miles on end. Too much of anything can turn sickening.
• • •
Currently, under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), a misguided farmer with a shotgun is more subject to prosecution than an industry whose activities regularly cause the deaths of thousands of birds. Fines incurred under the MBTA have long incentivized bird-friendlier practices, but this year, just in time for the hundredth anniversary of the act, the Department of the Interior declared in a memorandum that the MBTA doesn’t apply to incidental deaths. Should regular Americans, whose cats and cars and buildings are the biggest killers of birds, be criminals? the memorandum asks. But it’s oil companies the DOI’s new position would benefit most, says the Audubon Society, one of many groups who filed a lawsuit against it. The MBTA didn’t specifically address accidental mortality, but historically, companies have been held liable for the birds they “take,” whether through catastrophes like the BP oil spill or day-to-day operations. Now, if ducks mistake a wastewater pond on a drill site for a freshwater pond or raptors collide with the blades of poorly-sited wind turbines, companies cannot be held at fault. Of course, an oil company may still choose to cover a sludge pond out of a sense of compassion and moral duty.
• • •
A cheery 1931 USDA bulletin advised farmers that if they paid some mind to attracting birds to their properties, they “will be repaid not only by the birds’ services as insect destroyers, but also by the sprightliness of their presence and the melody of their songs”; all the “bird laborers” will require is “a moderate toll of a few crops, which, in view of services rendered, can well be paid.”
It all comes down to this fluid trade, doesn’t it? The tolls we pay for services rendered. What is sacrificed, what is gained.
A frothy plume of feathers, for the adornment of a hat.
For the birds’ sprightly presence, half a crop of strawberries devoured in two days. The high price of the remaining berries at a roadside stand in July.
Seven dead cedar waxwings, a chipping sparrow, and—for the satisfaction of shooting them—$2,400 in fines.
(There are worthy sacrifices and unworthy ones.)
For the amusement of our cats, several billion sleek bodies. Millions more for the light in our homes.
Letting one’s guard down, falling as prey, for the joy of being crammed to the throat with sweetness.
(Sometimes it is hard to know the difference.)
• • •
I may never know for sure what happened in early December 1908, in the rooms of the Vermont Senate, but even if, somehow, Forbush got the whole thing wrong, or was trying to slip one past us, the story resonates. Economic, logical arguments for saving nature are still being made today. Should we tear apart birds’ stomachs and count off every caterpillar and budworm? Or simply look and be blinded by beauty and ask no further questions? What will save the birds faster? And the marshes, forests, oceans that they—and we—depend on?
Obviously, it’s a combination. Beauty is arbitrary. It leaves things out. As I teach my students, pathos can be powerful but also deceptive. But as measures of value go, acquitting a species for the aesthetic reaction it has produced seems a step in the right direction. It strikes closer to the idea that all creatures have inherent worth, which would be the remaining and consummate form of appeal—the ethical one. Now we see those dreaded hawks, even the poor accipiters who take out chickens and pretty little songbirds, as something beautiful—physically impressive, sure, but also worthy of our protection. We allow them to flourish because that is the right thing to do.
Or, we don’t. In an era when we struggle to get lawmakers to take action, because the consequences of our practices are too distant and abstract or because we don’t have the patience for lists of minutiae and percentages, where could we start? Maybe it is time once again to start bringing in the specimens. Albatross chicks on Pacific islands, crammed to the throat not with insects but with bright bits of plastic; the scientists who inspect their stomachs counting not cutworms and cankerworms but bottle caps and fishing floats? The stunned, jeweled bodies of warblers piled below a skyscraper, their migrations cut short? Like the Vermont lawmakers, perhaps, we’d grow soft and merciful.
Perhaps the sin lies not in gluttony but in not taking all that is offered us. Why not admit we are gluttons for beauty, for the sweet burst of berries pushing past ripeness. And we may never find fruit like this again.
* Illustration by Anna Hall