On the third day of the great rain, when the sky had cleared just enough to lure me toward the newspaper at the end of the drive, I sensed a long, dark shadow as I walked to collect the morning headlines.
Turning, I could see the source of the darkness shading my way.
From top to bottom, our big loquat tree was covered with cedar waxwings — a thick cloud of birds perched on every branch, quietly having their fill of the tree’s new fruit.
I’ve written about cedar waxwings before. They’re about as big as cardinals, mostly brown with a blush of yellow, and memorable for a streak of black across their eyes, just like a bandit’s mask. Bright red wing tips that resemble wax give waxwings their funny nickname.
It’s fitting that waxwings look like burglars, since they’re creatures of great stealth. They travel in large flocks, love feasting on fruit, and tend to arrive quickly, satisfy their hunger, then move on as speedily as they came. There are many seasons when I see them not at all, and it’s purely a piece of luck to catch them at their meal.
My Peterson’s bird guide identifies the waxwing’s voice as a “high thin lisp or zee,” but it must be so high and thin that it eludes my middle-aged ear. They seem eerily silent to me, like the brooding birds of a Hitchcock movie, as they enjoy our loquats — little globes of fruit, hardly bigger than marbles, that my neighbor Jeannemarie makes into jam for us. Its flavor has sweetness and a bit of sting, sort of like life, which I think about as we spread it across our toast, mull the morning news, then try to decide which way humanity is going each day.
I didn’t worry about the waxwings preying on our fruit, since there’s always enough left over after they leave. The birds seemed like a glad tiding after the rain that had left many people in Louisiana flooded out of their homes. The waxwings made me remember the dove that alighted in Noah’s ark, the olive branch in its mouth bringing solid proof that the flood had abated.
As I get older, I’ve come to see the dove as telling Noah something else — that the same nature which brings floods and famines and fear can also produce something as beautiful as a bird.
It’s a great mystery how creation can be so two-sided, how we ourselves can be such a complicated mix of peril and possibility.
I thought I’d consider all of this over coffee — dripping a cup for the porch, bringing out the binoculars and casting an occasional eye toward the loquat tree to watch my visitors at breakfast.
So I made the coffee and laced my viewing glasses across the porch rocker, my viewing station complete.
But in the time it had taken me to settle in, the waxwings had completely vanished.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.