Odd birds

CEDAR WAXWING: One of only a few North American birds that eat mostly fruit. Occasionally they become drunk on berries that have started to ferment.

Fish crow: Has a hoarse "un uh" call almost like a goose, and is sometimes called the un-uh bird.

Red-winged blackbird: Males have as many as 15 female mates.

European starling: All the North American birds descended from 100 European starlings set loose by Shakespeare enthusiasts in New York's Central Park in the early 1890s.

Eastern Bluebird: Attracts a mate by carrying nest filling to the nest hole, then perching on top waving its wings.

Sources: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Sid Gauthreaux

No, your car windshield isn't safe. Not near berry trees. Not for another month or so.

Cedar waxwings are diving by the hordes, sometimes on a single berried tree, to strip it bare. If the car is parked underneath, you made a mistake.

"Hundreds of them will be on one palmetto," said Lowcountry ornithologist Sid Gauthreaux. And, "a berry in is a berry out. Cars are being pooped on under those trees."

Worse, it's not just cedar waxwings mobbing up. It's starlings, blackbirds, red-winged blackbirds, crows - even bluebirds in looser flocks of 60 or 70 at a time.

"We have bluebirds all over the (power line) wires right now," Gauthreaux said about Edisto Island, where he lives.

So what's going on? Winter. Birds that normally would be territorial, flapping away at each other to defend their turf, give up the attitude for savories or safety in the cold.

The phenomenon is maybe best recognized as a starling murmuration, where hundreds or thousands of the birds will flock, circling in dizzying waves.

"They'll fly in these aerial (patterns) where they're diving and swooping at the same times," said Matt Johnson, education manager at the Audubon Beidler Forest Sanctuary outside Harleyville.

"You see these incredible, dynamic clouds of birds," Gauthreaux said.

As surreal as a murmuration is, it serves a specific purpose for the birds - to protect the flock against a predator.

Murmurations occur here, but the Lowcountry has far fewer starlings than other regions, so a murmuring flock might be 50 birds or less. Meanwhile, the bigger displays put on here by species such as waxwings or blackbirds aren't defensive; they're ravenous. Even "murderous" fish crows are roosting in the salt marsh to be near food. (Murder is a term for a group of crows.)

The cedar waxwing got its name from its fondness for the berries on winter cedar trees, but it likes about anything that has a berry on it this time of year.

"They'll hit a holly tree until every berry is gone, then they'll move to the next tree," Gauthreaux said. And they'll keep at it, until they move to summer nesting grounds in late March or early April.

Don't get in their way; these guys are serious. The spinning air shows might look chaotic, but there's an organizing pattern. "The dominant birds are in the center, subordinate birds on the fringes," Gauthreaux said. "Well, you know, rank has its privileges."

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.