Sunday, March 18, 2007

They come, they see -- they devour my berries

Simply Living
The cedar waxwings have arrived. I saw them this morning, sitting patiently in the still leafless sycamore tree.

There must have been at least 50 birds, their gray plumage barely noticeable against the backdrop of an overcast morning. These featherweight bandits have timed their arrival -- as they do every year -- about a week before the mulberries are ready to pick.

Our family loves birds, but we also love mulberries. Therein lies the conflict.

We planted about a dozen mulberry trees shortly after moving to our property 15 years ago. The trees, once small, fruitless twigs, have grown in height, girth and productivity.

They now stand about 35 feet tall with almost as broad a canopy. Their long supple branches, laden with deliciously sweet fruit, bend toward the ground.

Mulberries are one of the first trees to bear fruit in the spring. Deciduous and prolific, these leafy wonders grow rapidly and are easy to maintain. They require no spraying or regular fertilizing and -- except for the cedar waxwings -- are relatively pest-free.

Although the mulberries we grow are a special white variety with extra-sweet fruit, the common mulberry is reddish-black. No matter their color, mulberries are always soft and slightly sticky when ripe. Kids like that. The small berries, about an inch long, squish easily, leaving a bright and colorful stain on anything they touch -- fingers, mouths, clothing, the soles of shoes.

Most parents don't find that trait appealing.

Once a popular landscape plant prized for its stately form and ability to attract birds as well as feed people, mulberries fell out of fashion among the suburban set. Years ago, when our family lived on Cape Cod, we watched as one mulberry tree after another was cut down.

"They're messy trees," homeowners repeatedly told us when asked why they were chopping down such elegant and edible additions to the landscape.

They're right. Mulberries are messy, but they're also tasty. While large quantities of dropped fruit surround the base of most trees, plenty of berries remain on the branches, attracting birds, feeding people and providing 9-year-olds with an abundant supply of fruity finger-paint March through May.

You can't buy mulberries at a grocery store. The only place to get these edible delights is to pick someone's tree or grow your own. That's what Ralph and I did when we moved to Florida.

We just didn't realize we'd be sharing so much of our bounty with the birds.

Cedar waxwings are social critters, traveling in flocks that descend en masse upon food sources. With their crested crowns and black-banded eyes, waxwings have an elegant, natty appearance. Picture a female cardinal crossed with a tufted titmouse and imagine it wearing a Zorro-like mask.

While the migrating flocks have a passion for red cedar berries -- hence their name -- they are not fussy eaters. Waxwings are just as happy to dine on blueberries as they are chokecherries. They like privet berries, holly berries, blackberries or the mulberries we were just about to pick.

They also eat insects, applying their gluttonous appetite to invertebrates such as weevils, carpenter ants and flies.

Sharing a few berries wouldn't be a problem. But when waxwings discover a food source, they don't drop by for a polite nibble; they employ the descend-and-devour technique.

They've even developed a special feeding method to ensure that no edible morsel is overlooked. It's the avian equivalent of a buffet line. Dozens of birds will land on one branch and proceed to pass a berry down the line from one bird to the next until each bird gets something to eat.

Much to farmers' horror, these voracious eaters can wipe out an entire crop in hours.

That's what happened to our mulberries about four years ago. It was the year after a winged scout must have entered our address in the waxwing register of fly-by-and-dine spots.

They came. They landed. They consumed.

Before long, all the berries were gone. Since then, we've tried one unsuccessful technique after another to discourage their feasting. People don't intimidate waxwings, so shooing them away is a waste of time. Blasting loud music doesn't scare them, nor does peppering branches with fake owl statues or shiny items.

The best solution so far has been to net an entire tree. When properly done, netting works but has a horrible side effect -- some birds inevitably get tangled in the net and die. No matter how many berries they eat, I refuse to kill birds to ensure a harvest.

This year, as I watch yet another contingency of flying mouths perching in the sycamore, I can't help but wonder how these 1.13-ounce bundles of feather and bone manage to know just when to arrive at our property. Their timing is uncanny, their appetite ravenous and their beauty exquisite.

Even if I don't reap more than a handful of mulberries this year, my harvest will be bountiful -- my yard has become a bird haven, and that alone is worth savoring.

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