For the Birds Radio Program: Mid-Summer Waxwings
Late July and August is a quiet time in the natural world. Most songbirds are at the end of their childrearing days for another year, and since there is no reason to defend their breeding territory, they’ve pretty much stopped singing. Early in the morning an occasional robin or yellowthroat still breaks into song, but we hear nothing like the dawn chorus that greeted us in May or June.
Late summer sounds are softer and sleepier than spring ones, in keeping with those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer. Grasshoppers and locusts make raspy sounds, crickets stridulate, and above all, cedar waxwings make their soft, sibilant notes, like tiny mice snoring up in the trees.
Waxwings are a ubiquitous presence in summer-anyplace where berries grow, or in open areas with a few big shade trees, they can be heard if you prick up your ears a bit. Sometimes they sally out from a bare branch to snatch a flying insect, but more and more they spend their time within thick, berry-laden branches, where it takes just a bit of effort to see them.
Waxwings are crested, but as they eat placidly in large, sociable flocks, they keep their crests plastered against their heads. The only times when waxwings actually raise their crests are when confronted with a potential predator or when another waxwing approaches a nest, trying to steal nesting material. Otherwise waxwings are not at all territorial. Unlike almost all songbirds, which defend a territory against others of their kind, waxwing pairs tolerate other waxwings nesting not only in the same tree but on adjacent branches.
Adult waxwings are extraordinarily handsome. Their brownish plumage is so sleek that it doesn’t seem to be comprised of feathers-sometimes even at close range a waxwing looks more like a smooth carving than a real bird. The tip of a waxwing’s tail appears to have been dipped in bright yellow paint, and some of the secondary wing feathers have a tiny bright tip as if dipped in red sealing wax, giving the species its name. This year’s young waxwings are recognizable still, with their streaked breasts, somewhat shaggy appearance, and fairly loud begging calls.
Young birds do have the yellow tail tip but very few, if any, red wing-feather tips. You can’t precisely age a waxwing by those feather tips, but the older they are, the more likely they are to have a lot.
August is a time of abundance for waxwings, as more and more of summer’s sweet berries ripen. Once autumn frosts begin and some berries ferment, waxwings become vulnerable to alcohol toxicity. When they become intoxicated, they often fall or smack into trees and walls, dying from the trauma. And sometimes the alcohol toxicity itself can kill them–in cases where waxwings have been found dead near fermented fruits, ethanol levels in their crops and livers have been high. But right now its summertime, and the living is easy. Succulent fruit is ripening, but not yet overripe, and these soft-spoken, sweet-natured, sociable birds are having the most pleasant times of their year. This is the time to enjoy them-these sweet birds with their sweet diets, bearing testament to the maxim that you are what you eat.