EVEN ED ABBEY COULD IDENTIFY A WAXWING
Edward Abbey famously wrote that the only birds he could identify were pigeons, buzzards, and fried chicken. I suspect, however, he could identify Cedar Waxwings. According to one source, Cedar Waxwings are a shiny mixture of “brown, gray, and lemon-yellow, accented with a subdued crest, rakish black mask, and brilliant-red wax droplets on the wing feathers.
Most winters, our backyard has flocks of cedar waxwings feeding on the red berries of our two Hawthorn trees. Their feeding habits are interesting. One of our Hawthorns is ~25 ft. tall and the other half that height. The waxwings begin at the top of the tallest tree and strip all the berries until they reach the height of the smaller tree. They also omit the branches that brush against our bedroom window. But, when only those are left, they will strip the smaller tree and finish off the berries outside our window—often within two feet of someone looking from the inside. It is a treat to see such a beautiful bird so close.
Last week, I counted 68 in the same tree. They flutter like so many butterflies from the fruit trees, to tall trees nearby if something scares them. I also noticed them flying en masse to the roof of our house. I realized there is a shady corner providing melting snow for an easy drink. So, they have a perfect triangle of food, water, and cover—the three things a bird needs to thrive.
As my photos show, waxwing plumage appears soft and silky. But note the tips to the wing feathers and tail.
These tips appeared to early observers as sealing wax, hence the common name of waxwing. Cedar waxwings nest nearby in mid-elevation riparian areas. In late spring and early summer, when native fruits are ripening, look for them in wet areas with tall trees at elevations of 6000-8000 feet or so. Their diet is mostly fruit, but later in the summer, I often see them perched on high dead limbs from which they sally into the air to feed on flying insects.
During courtship, waxwings are known to pass berries back and forth. I vividly recall, as a small boy, seeing several sitting on a wire passing a berry from one to the next. Seeing such beautiful and apparently polite behavior was an early inspiration for my interest in birds.
My photos are misleading because Cedar Waxwings are tiny—as I’m sadly reminded most years as one or more crash into one of our windows trying to escape a marauding hawk. They are only 7 inches long. Their crest, relatively long tail, and pointed wings give the appearance of a larger and more robust bird. They actually weigh less than the common sparrows and finches.
A characteristic of waxwings is their flocking and wandering behavior. Frequently, I will be watching 20 or more in my tree and suddenly, they are gone—spooked by a loud sound, a gust of wind, or maybe a hawk who would dine on them. The flocks wander erratically depending, apparently, on where they happen to find food, and, perhaps, on the weather. Such behavior is termed "irruptive," a fancy way of saying, "now you see them, now you don't." This is typified by what I see in my yard. Perhaps half the time, they find my trees early and strip every berry by mid-December. One year in four, they show up late, as this year—and the other year in four, I don’t see them at all. So, watch for a lot of activity in any berry-laded bushes still remaining in the valley. You may see one of North America's most beautiful birds.
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