Monday, December 6, 2010

Waxwing Party at the Pond

White lines on the back and red "wax" AMcC
The Cedar Waxwing is a lovely bird with silky smooth feathers, a jaunty crest. and a mask that makes him look like Zorro the Avenger. They are expectable in winter, but unpredictable and easy to miss when you’re out birding in my area. So when a flock of Cedar Waxwings dropped by my yard some days ago to visit my little swimmin’ hole, I grabbed my point-and-shoot camera a got a few shots.

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 
Cedar waxwings are very fond of the blue “berries” of Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana). Although they are round and appear as berries, they are really the female cones of this evergreen tree. According to Dave Tylka, in Native Landscaping for Wildlife and People, the cones are low-fat and low-sugar, which means that birds will ignore them until late winter when all the high-fat dogwood, sassafras, and black gum berries have disappeared into the crops of fall-migrating birds. Cedar berries are a reliable reserve food--sort of like oatmeal. If you can’t get a Belgian waffle, you take what you can get.

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 an important wildlife plant in my area. Tylka calls the cedar the number-one winter roost for birds. Besides providing winter dining for fruit-eating birds, the cones/berries are used to flavor gin, of all things. Wikipedia records that the oldest red cedar was found in Missouri. It was 795 years old.

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.


  1. I didn't know that about waxwings liking cedar berries. We have tons of red cedars here on the coast, so I'll have to keep an eye out for waxwings!

  2. The first caged bird I ever spent time with, when I was a little girl was a Cedar Waxwing. My Uncle had been hunting dove and this bird was shot by mistake. His wing was badly damaged, and it was obvious he would not fly again. This was probably close to 45 years ago, so there were no wildlife rehabbers. My Grandmother nursed the bird back to health and kept him for at least a couple of years.

  3. Hi Rebecca! Georgia is part of the waxwing's winter range, so look for a tight flock overhead calling "Seeeeee!"

  4. Laura, it's so amazing that you knew a cedar waxwing personally! Your Grandmother must have been pretty devoted to keep it healthy. Thanks for the story!

  5. For more discussion on the complex issue of fire management of natural areas, see Flaming the Debate on Ted MacRae's Beetles in the Bush.

  6. A couple of years ago we were experiencing a snow storm (dropped 12") and our Peach tree and Apple tree were suddenly filled with Cedar Waxwing. We counted between 60-70, it was truly thrilling to see such 'exotic' birds in our part of the country.

    We live south of Salt Lake City and this is the first and only time I have ever seen Cedar Waxwing here.

  7. Sounds like a magical scene! 12" of snow sounds a bit scary though.

  8. Beautiful birds...and the pond doesn't look too shabby either. :)

    I've only seen cedar waxwings in pictures, but would love to have them visit my yard/developing habitat. I'm hoping the black gum seedlings I planted will mature before too long and may attract these--yes, "exotic" looking birds.

  9. Hopefully a flock will visit soon. A water source, a tree with berries, or an evergreen should bring them in. Good luck with your wildlife sanctuary!

  10. Waxwings are great! And what a special photo of them on the ground - as you say, normally they are up in the trees.

  11. I was pretty excited to get this photo, because I just have a point & shoot camera. They let me approach within a few feet. Really unique birds!