Here is a mythological/ornithological joke for your week. “This ongoing heat wave has been really hard on the birds — especially the Waxwings!”
The heat has been hard on the birds, in actuality, and that’s no joke. But it occurred to me that “Waxwing” is a rather inauspicious name for a bird.
The fruit-eating Waxwings have been flocking and feasting in our forests and gardens during these hot days of summer. I’ve been keeping my eyes open, but I’ve not seen them dropping from the skies. Their wings of wax are intact, unlike the wax wings of Icarus, from the mythological days of yore.
Icarus was the son of the Greek Daedalus. Daedalus himself was the greatest genius, inventor and thinker-outside-the-box the world has ever known. He invented carpentry, for example, and all the tools that went with it, including glue.
Daedalus had a nephew, however, who was just as clever. When his nephew invented the saw (from the jaws of a snake), Daedalus, in a fit of jealousy, threw him off a bridge.
Daedalus fled to Crete, to avoid answering to a murder charge. In Crete, he entered into the service of the great King Minos, and created all sorts of wonders, like clockwork statues that walked and talked (Daedalus also invented the coiled spring and the cogwheel); and fantastic architecture, like the labyrinth, that housed the terrible Minotaur.
But eventually, Daedalus fell afoul of King Minos, and was imprisoned along with his teenage son Icarus, facing a sentence of death, in a tower cell littered with pigeon droppings and feathers.
Daedalus plotted the most ingenious escape of all time. He fashioned two sets of wings — one each for himself and Icarus — out of the feathers, holding them together with candle wax and thread unravelled from their clothes. Daedalus cautioned Icarus not to fly too low — where the feathers could become sodden with sea spray — or too high — where the heat of the sun would melt the wax.
They then took off in flight from the window of their tower cell, over the Mediterranean towards Greece.
But in a classic (literally) case of hubris, Icarus became so excited by the thrill of flight that he lost his head, and starting riding the thermals upwards, for the adrenaline rush. Who can blame him, really? The heat of the sun melted the wax, the feathers blew away, and Icarus plunged thousands of feet into the sea. Daedalus flew on. What else could he do?
As for the waxwings as birds, there are only three species of them (Bohemian, Cedar, and Japanese), and they are the only family in the genus Bombycilla. Bombycilla is a word made up by the French ornithologist Vieillot, who in attempting to classify the Waxwings translated into Latin the word “silktail” — or “Seidenschwanze” in the original German. All wonderful words, for wonderful birds.
Silky plumage, a black line through the eye and black under the chin, a square-ended tail with a red or yellow tip, and a pointed crest, and wing tips that look the sealing wax — hence their name — they are indeed a finely feathered friend.
They don’t migrate per se, but wander nomadically and sporadically around their territory. Perhaps they learned their lesson from Icarus, and think of him and his wax wings when they’re fluffing and preening their own.
Perhaps the Bombycillidae think of the story Icarus as some manner of apocryphal cautionary tale in their own mythologies.
And thus, the birds learn lessons from the foolishness of humans.
The Bombycillidae are great lovers of fruit, and all the fine delicacies, much as were the ancient Greeks of mythology. I can imagine flocks of them in the forests of Arcadia, back in Greece, buzzing around the ears of Daedalus, who having made it back home, sits under a tree staring out at the sea.