Winter can be tough on the prairie. Tourism officials from my home state of South Dakota wince when native writers mention cold winters, but let's buck up and admit it's true. Still, winter also rewards prairie people who endure the cold, and vagabond cedar waxwings are among the best blessings.
In fall, gypsy waxwings leave their summer homes in Alaska and Saskatchewan to flee south in search of warmer temperatures. By December, of course, the northern tier of the United States has already experienced a morsel of winter.
In the Dakotas, our first snows often fall in October or early November. December usually brings an intermission when the sun shines. Snow- drifts melt under the juniper trees in the windbreak around my yard, leaving tall grass sheltered by thick branches.
Then the waxwings drop into the prickly limbs, declaring a holiday from their voyage. These chic sophisticates are normally aloof and shy, camouflaged in tan and gray so they are nearly invisible against grass silvered by a summer's sun. Formal photographs and sketches in bird books show cedar waxwings in dignified brown suits with gray cravats. Bright red epaulets adorn their wings, and each tail is horizontally striped in yellow. Their heads look pointed under an erect crest. (In the middle of a military metaphor, perhaps I shouldn't mention the yellow feathers on their bellies.) Bohemian waxwings, cousins of those who visit my northern yard, also sport vivid yellow, black, and white wing markings to set off their red badges.
But those dignified portraits in the bird books can be misleading. When the cedar trees shimmy without wind, I stop plodding through drifts and raise my head. Berries bounce off my stocking cap as cedar waxwings flirt among the branches peeking through Lone Ranger masks. It's time for the great cedar berry feast.
Waxwings who overindulge in juniper berries lose their dignity, changing from shy fowl to swaggering extroverts. Gobbling the main ingredient for a raucous bird party, they hang upside own. If two land on the same branch, they flap their wings and turn rowdy, fluttering from one tree to the next, squawking.
Below, barn cats prowl the yard, yowling in frustration. Ears flattened, they ignore insults hurled by the birds, since they can't retaliate. Bellies grounded, the cats roll their eyes and lash their tails in vain, staring at the cedar trunks.
I celebrate the waxwings' joy by watching from a distance as part of my winter solstice ritual. Whenever they appear in winter, I know snow will fall that night or the next day; when they pass by in spring, I observe their festival with a smile, knowing warm weather is a few days behind them, no matter how deep I stand in snow.
When they are thirsty, the cedar waxwings behave like the crowds after a rock concert, flying in an untidy bunch to the cattle watering tank in the corral. They utter a high-pitched trill, the sound one might draw from a tiny frozen fiddle.
While 30 or 40 waxwings cling to the fence, reeling and lurching, several perch on the ice, leaning forward to sip water from the holes I chop each day, where the cows slurp. The birds pause occasionally to chatter; they sound like my neighbors at the post office comparing low temperatures, reminding me of the old saying that the first liar hasn't got a chance. Finally, the whole flock flies in a staggering array back to the cedar trees; branches shudder as they gobble and fight.
Early one morning, they all rise into the air and fly toward the next stand of juniper trees - always south - where I presume they eat every berry in sight. All day, our cats eye the cedar trees suspiciously and jump if I whistle at them.
The junipers will stand silent and dignified until the flock passes through in spring.