Cedar Waxwing murmuration promotes thoughts on teaching

Cedar Waxwings cover the tree, much like Christmas tree ornaments, as they eat berries. Photos by Julie Dodd

Cedar Waxwings cover the tree, much like Christmas tree ornaments, as they eat berries. Photo by Julie Dodd

I could hear them. That high-pitched whistle.

Then I could see them at the top of the tree near where I had parked my car.

Cedar Waxwings.

I’m a bird enthusiast and the Cedar Waxwings are one of my favorites. My first “research” paper was on the Cedar Waxwings – a report for second grade, complete with a sticker of the bird. I wrote the report before I’d actually seen the bird in person. I just had the bird sticker along with the bird book. And what an amazing looking bird, with a black mask and a tail that looks like the tip has been dipped in bright yellow paint.

The Cedar Waxwings migrate through Gainesville most winters when berries on some palms and trees provide a feast.

Cedar Waxwings travel in large flocks. I’ve watched them circle around and then land on a tree, eat the berries, and then leave as a group.

Cedar Waxwings - photo by Julie Dodd

With black mask and yellow-tipped tails, the Cedar Waxwings swarmed the palms for berries. Photo by Julie Dodd

That’s what the birds were doing in the parking lot. A group would fly to one tree, settle for a minute or two, and then fly to the next tree. Sometimes, a group would fly by a tree and another group of Waxwings would join them.

As I watched, one group joined another and another. Hundreds of the birds formed a small cloud above the parking lot. They swooped off and flew almost out of sight. As they flew, their group flying pattern changed from a cloud to several different almost geometric shapes. (Where was my Canon camera when I needed that longer lens?)

A murmuration.

I’d learned that term from reading about the dramatic video of a Starling murmuration shot by Sophie Windsor Clive while canoeing in Ireland. [A murmuration is a great cloud of birds that fly in orchestrated formations.]

After their group ballet, the Cedar Waxwings flew back to the parking lot. The large flock separated into small groups, and the birds returned to eating the berries on the trees.

As a faculty member who spends quite a bit of time and thought on planning group learning activities for 200 undergraduates, coordinated with six lab instructors, I marveled at the flock’s ability to work and change in unison.

No handouts or PowerPoint slides were evident.


  1. Cedar waxwings remind me of teaching, too. When I was your teaching assistant, I remember taking a break from our weekly planning meeting because we were both totally distracted by the cedar waxwings swarming the tree outside your office window.


    1. Paige – That’s a fun memory for me, too. I also have the picture of the two Cedar Waxwings that you gave me on my desk. So the special birds are visiting me even when there aren’t berries.


  2. Just the word murmuration has so much to reveal about teaching and learning. And I just read this piece in the New Yorker with wonderful photos too: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2014/02/slide-show-murmurs-by-richard-barnes.html#slide_ss_0=1?utm_source=tny&utm_campaign=generalsocial&utm_medium=facebook&mbid=social_facebook . Your thoughts also remind me that Anne Lamotte’s Bird by Bird is good instruction for writing and for life.


    1. Kay – You’re right that birds (and murmurations) can reveal a lot about teaching and learning. Thanks for making the connection with Anne Lamotte’s Bird by Bird. I’ve shared her story — that led to the title of the book — with quite a few students who have had trouble taking flight on a project. Your story of the Ruby Crowned Kinglets is touching example of a birds and life story — http://fartheralongbook.com/2012/12/19/1896/


  3. “Birds of a feather flock together” is clearly evident in the classroom as I watch students figure out where to sit on the first day of class, who they talk to, how they move…


    1. Carol – Thanks for the classroom “birds” observation. And for most students, once they find their perch on the first day of class, they are flocking back to the same area from then on. Important to devise methods of moving the flock to new seating locations for class activities so they can meet other classmates.


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