|White lines on the back and red "wax" AMcC|
I never really noticed the striking white lines on the back that show in this photo, but then I don’t often have a view looking down on Cedar Waxwings. The white edge is formed by wing feathers close to the body (the tertials). Usually I see them high in the sky, calling to each other in the flock with a high-pitched “Seeeee!”
Joined by a few Dark-eyed Juncos and a small group of Pine Siskins, the waxwings bathed the way they do everything; enthusiastically, and with friends. The Birder’s Handbook; A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds, by Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, describes the exact behavior we see in this photo. They use their wings to splash water up onto the back, while holding the tail up and head back to “form a cup” (Birder’s Handbook, 1988, 429).
|This waxwing uses his wings and tail to form a cup. AMcC|
Waxwings have been found to digest cedar berries in 12 minutes flat! Research shows that seeds that take the short outing through a waxwing’s digestive tract triple their chances of germination. Of course, within 12 minutes the bird may travel, depositing the seed many yards away from the shade of the parent plant.
The fondness for cedar berries accounts for the first part of the English name, but what about that strange surname? Waxwings are named for the waxy material on tips of the secondary wing feathers of adults (The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, Elphick, Dunning, and Sibley, ed. 2001, 484). Only adult birds have this, and it’s very hard to spot, in spite of the fact that the Wikipedia article on Cedar Waxwing calls it “the bird’s most prominent feature.” Birds were named during the era when devotees of birds carried shotguns, not binoculars. Those early “birders” named birds for features that stood out as unique while holding the bird in hand, not for field marks as we think of them today. Sibley says that this material feels “more like plastic,” so I’m guessing he’s handled a few waxwings in hand too. This red “wax” is visible in my first photo.
|Cedars provide wildlife with food and shelter. AMcC|
Cedars are a “pioneer” species, meaning that they thrive in open, disturbed areas. They have invaded the open glade habitats found on west and south-facing slopes throughout the Ozarks, shading out rare glade plants. In the past, wildfire would have controlled the advance of cedars. Between habitat loss to roads and parking lots and the suppression of fire, glade species have declined while cedars increased.
The Wikipedia article on cedar also mentions their use as Christmas trees in the Ozarks, a fact confirmed by my brother-in-law. He grew up in Rolla, Missouri, in the heart of the Ozarks. They would cut a cedar on Grandma’s farm, then cut the top out. The lower portion of the tree is too scraggly to use a decoration. The house would fill with scent of the fresh cut cedar heartwood.