By June Osborne
The tight-knit flock of Cedar Waxwings, wheezing their high-pitched, sibilant notes, wheeled around the sky several times above the winter-bare elm tree. After landing en masse, the well-groomed birds perched close together, erect, silent and motionless on the limbs.
It was a cold, damp, dreary winter day. Droplets of water were suspended on every branch of the tree, icicles about to form. Clumps of bright green mistletoe loaded with plump, white berries decorated the tree like left-over Christmas balls. That’s what the Cedar Waxwings were after — the juicy, ripe mistletoe berries — and the droplets of water.
Cedar Waxwings and Bohemian Waxwings like to catch insects by flying out from a high perch to take them in midair. They also take berries while hovering.
I’d been watching for them all morning. This was just the kind of day I usually see my first Cedar Waxwings of the season in Central Texas. They didn’t disappoint me.
After sitting for a while, one, then two, then three Cedar Waxwings began to feed on the berries that are delicious to birds but poisonous to humans. Other waxwings followed suit until all of them were foraging in close proximity to each other without apparent aggression. Almost before I could say “Bombycilla cedrorum,” all the berries had been stripped from the clumps of mistletoe.
After the feast, I was surprised to see birds lowering their heads and turning almost upside-down to drink from the suspended water droplets. Then, as if choreographed, the Cedar Waxwings dropped to the street beneath the tree, where rain puddles invited them to drink more fully, and joined a flock of American Robins to splash and bathe in the gutter.
Attract Cedar Waxwings To Your Yard
Cedar Waxwings are some of the most difficult birds to attract to our yards. In fact, it’s almost impossible if you don’t have trees and shrubs that produce fruits and berries. A diet analysis from primarily the northeastern United States over a 65-year period revealed that fruit constitutes 84 percent of Cedar Waxwings’ annual diet, flower parts 4 percent and insect prey 12 percent. They prefer elm leaf beetles, weevils, carpenter ants, sawfly larvae, cicadas, scale insects and caterpillars. They are especially fond of cankerworms, according to “The Birds of North America, Life Histories for the 21st Century” (No. 309, 1997). They eat flowers for a brief period in the spring when fruit supplies are low and take insects on the wing in the summer. They also drink sap from maple trees.
Heavy reliance on fruit is uncommon among birds that live in the temperate zone. However, during winter months, Cedar Waxwings eat fruits and berries almost exclusively. Their favorite foods are cedar berries, mountain ash (Sorbus americana), toyon (Photinia arbutifolia), mistletoe, madrone (Arbutus menziesi), juniper and peppertree (Schinus molle).
In recent years, especially in winter, Cedar Waxwings have come to rely increasingly on ornamental fruits planted in urban areas. The size of fruits eaten by Cedar Waxwings is limited only by the width of their gape. Among their favorites are crabapple (Malus spp.), hawthorn (Crataegus spp.), firethorn, pyracantha, Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia), and alien honeysuckles. In summer, key parts of their diet include serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.), strawberry (Fragaria spp.) and mulberry (Morus spp.). Cherries (Prunus spp.) figure so prominently in summer diets that Cedar Waxwings are often called “cherry-birds.” Other colloquial names by which they are known are “Canada robin,” “cedar bird” and “southern waxwing.”
When a flock of Cedar Waxwings finds a tree or shrub loaded with fruit, the tree becomes a veritable “banquet hall.” The waxwings swarm like bees around the hanging fruit, sometimes hovering while grabbing a bite. Often individual birds gorge themselves on the fruit until they are so full they cannot fly away.
Are There Orange Tips On Your Waxwings?
Don’t think you’re seeing things if you see a Cedar Waxwing with orange instead of yellow on the tip of its tail. Individuals with orange-tipped rectrices have appeared in the last 35 years, a result of eating exotic honeysuckle fruits (Lonicera spp.) during molt. My friend Martin Reid of Ft. Worth, Texas, photographed just such a bird at Village Creek Drying Beds in Tarrant County, Texas, on May 1, 1999.
Martin said, “The orange tip to the tail of the bird was immediately striking, and it was seen a number of times as the flock of 50-plus birds fed in the willows. The Travis Audubon Society website mentions a report of such a bird and states that this color is thought to occur when young birds (with still-growing tails) feed on the fruit of Morrow’s honeysuckle, a non-native plant grown in the northern U.S. that contains a red pigment called rhodoxanthin. The report says that there are no other records of this form from Texas.”
The Travis Web site goes on to say that this condition was first noticed in the northeastern states and adjacent Canada back in the 1960s. When rhodoxanthin is consumed as a waxwing’s new tail feathers are developing, it combines with the feathers’ yellow pigments to produce orange-tipped tails. Martin said it was interesting to note that Morrow’s honeysuckle is native to Japan, where the Japanese Waxwing lives. This waxwing has a red-tipped tail.
If the fruit is overripe and fermented, waxwings might become intoxicated and tumble from the tree and must sober up on the ground before they can fly. Some even die from this intoxication. One study in Southern California (Miller 1932) found that 42 birds from a flock of about 200 Cedar Waxwings died after eating fermented palm (Phoenix spp.) fruits.
In A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding (Knopf, 1994), John V. Dennis suggests that if you see waxwings feeding in your fruit-bearing plants but you want to see them closer, place some of the foods the waxwings are eating on a bird table in full view of the flock. You might add raisins, dried currants or chopped apples to the fare and see if they accept your offerings. (I’ve never had luck with this.)
One of the most interesting and amusing behaviors among waxwings is when birds perched on a utility wire or a limb pass a berry or small fruit from one bird to the next — beak to beak. It’s as if they’re playing a game. Finally, one bird claims the prize and eats it. It is thought that this may be part of their courtship ritual.
A water feature in your yard may be more attractive to Cedar Waxwings than food offerings. Like all fruit eaters, waxwings seem to have an unquenchable thirst. It’s entertaining to watch the ritual of bath time for a flock of these elegant birds. They flutter down from the treetops like miniature helicopters and completely encircle the water dish. As they crowd around the rim, they resemble mechanical toys, bowing and dipping for a refreshing drink. After satisfying their thirst, they take turns going into the water for a session of bathing. The scene could easily be set to music by Walt Disney & Co.
Easy Ceader Waxing I.D.
Among the most beautiful of North American birds, Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) possess silky, sleek plumage in soft shades of brown, gray and yellow. With long, tufted crests, square yellow-tipped tails, white undertail coverts, dark bibs and narrow black “Zorro” masks outlined in white, they are some of the easiest to identify. The sexes are alike except the female’s bib may be brown, the male’s black. This is difficult to discern unless you have the bird in hand. Waxwings have no seasonal variation in plumage.
At close range, the observer can see red tips on the secondaries of the Cedar Waxwing’s grayish wings. It looks as if the wingtips have been dipped into a red waxy substance. The species gets its common name from this very characteristic. Arthur Cleveland Bent compares this flash of brightness on the wing to “a carnation in our buttonhole.” Immatures are grayish, heavily streaked below, and usually lacking the red appendages.
The purpose of the red wingtips has scientists baffled. Theory has it that this plumage characteristic may be an important signal in mate selection or social organization. The red appendages increase in number and size with the bird’s age, at least until it attains its basic definitive (adult) plumage, and may serve as a sign of age and social status. Individual birds with zero or few waxy tips are presumably immatures. Older birds prefer to pair with other older birds and have greater success at nesting than pairs of younger birds. The pairs stay together at least through the breeding season even when raising a second brood.
Cedar Waxwings are among the latest-nesting birds in North America. They may be found breeding in early June through August and sometimes as late as September and October. This habit of breeding so late in the summer and fall is related to the species’ reliance on summer-ripening sugary fruits. Cedar Waxwings lay four to six eggs per clutch, sometimes fewer. The pale bluish gray eggs sport black dots toward the larger end.
During nesting season, waxwings are so tame that they are known to come to your hand for bits of string and yarn. There have even been reports of waxwings plucking hairs from a woman’s head for nesting material.
The male finds a “guard perch” from which he stands sentinel to defend the nest from potential predators. Sometimes he dives to the attack when Blue Jays, House Wrens or grackles threaten the safety of the nest and its contents.
Known predators of Cedar Waxwings include Merlins and Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks. In my own yard, I have seen Sharp-shinned Hawks capture unsuspecting Cedar Waxwings and carry them to a secluded spot for a feast. Once, Cedar Waxwings from a large spring flock in Texas were eaten by bullfrogs as the birds drank from the edge of a stock pond.
Soft And Social Birds
Cedar Waxwings are anything but stellar performers in the voice department. Their soft, thin whistles and trills are barely audible. Even so, you usually hear them before you see them. They utter these high-pitched lisping sounds to keep the flock together in flight and as they feed.
Cedar Waxwings are gregarious birds. You hardly ever see just one. They travel in large flocks year-round and appear to be nonterritorial throughout the year. They even nest in colonies of up to a dozen pairs of birds in one clump of trees, defending only the territory immediately adjacent to the nest. When adult birds leave the nest site to forage for food, they travel “with the group.”
Notorious for wandering, their movements are totally unpredictable. They may appear in any state of the Union at almost any time of the year. These unpredictable nomadic movements are typical of birds that feed on patchily distributed foods, such as fruits.
The summer range of Cedar Waxwings reaches from southeastern Alaska across Canada and into the northern United States. In winter, you may see them all across the U. S. and casually to Bermuda, the West Indies, and south as far as Panama and northern South America.
Bohemian Waxwings: Free-Spirited Nomads
Perhaps less familiar to most birders in North America is another member of the family Bombycillidae, the Bohemian Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus). Bohemians are considered “birds of mystery” by many, for in fall and winter, they may come and go like a band of gypsies.
An elegant bird, it is grayer and larger than the Cedar Waxwing by an inch. It also has white and yellow spots on its red- and yellow-bordered wings and conspicuous white wing patches. Its undertail coverts are cinnamon, not white.
The Bohemian Waxwing breeds in coniferous forests from Alaska to northern Manitoba. Bohemian Waxwings also lay pale bluish-gray to pale gray eggs, usually three to five in a clutch. Resident populations are found from British Columbia through northern and central Saskatchewan and into parts of central Manitoba. In winter, large, highly social flocks move into central and southern Manitoba from their northern breeding grounds, replacing Cedar Waxwings, which have migrated south by then. Bohemian Waxwings may move as far as California and Texas in the winter and more regularly to the Rocky Mountain region. They occasionally move as far east as the central Atlantic Coast.
In flight, Bohemian Waxwing flocks keep together by chattering incessantly with buzzy notes or a low, rough scree. From this habit, the northern waxwing is known as “Bohemian chatterer” and “northern chatterer.” Like Cedar Waxwings, the species is difficult to attract to your yard without fruit- or berry-producing plants. The most important fruits are those of mountain ash and berries of cedar and junipers. The Bohemian Waxwing also likes the sap of maple trees.
Wherever you live in North America, you should be able to see at least one of the two waxwing species that live among us. Their numbers seem to be stable or increasing. Consider yourself fortunate, indeed, if waxwings decide to grace your backyard with their elegant presence.
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