For the Birds Radio Program: Cedar Waxwing

Original Air Date: Aug. 11, 1986

This elegant bird is everywhere up here in August.

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August is the month of Cedar Waxwings in the northland. Almost anywhere in Duluth you can see the sleek, crested silhouettes of waxwings—individuals and groups—sitting on wires and treetops. They spend the lazy days of summer’s end fattening up on berries and flying insects, as they lisp their thin, high-pitched calls, like tiny mice snoring.

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Although the coloring of the Cedar Waxwing is muted—mostly brown and soft yellow—the waxwing is without argument a beautiful bird. No other species found in Minnesota in the summer has such sleek plumage. Its family name, Bombycillidae, means silky tail. The common name comes from the unique bright red waxy deposit at the tips of the adult’s wing feathers. The Cedar Waxwing also has yellow tips on each of the tail feathers, making a bright terminal tail band. For a very close look, you might stop by the Duluth Zoo—the Children’s Zoo building currently has one or two waxwings flying about.

Cedar Waxwings are unusually tame birds that often allow people to approach very close—wild birds can often be induced to take food or nesting materials right from a person’s hand. They are a favorite with people permitted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to care for injured birds—they are calm and docile.

Cedar Waxwings are also affectionate with each other—flocks frequently pass a single cherry or mountain ash berry back and forth, from one bird to the next along a long line, before one bird finally swallows the berry and the group starts over.

Cedar Waxwings eat flower petals, berries, and insects, including several species harmful to crops. These birds certainly seem to enjoy their meals—sometimes to the point of gluttony. As soon as a flock notices a mountain ash tree with ripe berries, or a blossoming apple tree, they descend and pig out until they’re so stuffed that some of them can’t take off again. In fall and winter, when many species of berries become fermented, waxwings often get intoxicated and stagger around on lawns and roads in a drunken stupor—many are killed by predators and struck by cars before they sober up.

In most years Cedar Waxwings leave Duluth for the winter, and are replaced by their larger, noisier relatives, Bohemian Waxwings. But in some years both species are abundant all winter. Their wanderings are erratic—ornithologists can detect little pattern to their movements throughout the continent. Here in Duluth, late summer and fall are almost always the time when Cedar Waxwings are most abundant—and this year is no exception. Look for them all over town: along the shore, at Park Point, Hawk Ridge, Leif Erickson Park—just about anywhere. You might even notice a flock of them flying overhead—they have a shape somewhat similar to a starling in flight, with their short tail and pointed wings, but Waxwings fly in a more leisurely fashion, undulating in flight. If your ears are trained to tune out traffic and voices and other sounds of civilization, you may even hear a flock of Cedar Waxwings calling as they pass over.

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This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”