For the Birds Radio Program: Pumphouse Kingbirds and Waxwings

Original Air Date: Aug. 30, 1989

Laura talks about two insect and fruit-eating birds she enjoys seeing at the Lakewood Pumping Station, each with a bright terminal tail band and a tiny but vivid red spot on its plumage. 3:55 (Date verified)

Audio missing


Pumphouse Kingbirds

(Recording of a Cedar Waxwing)

For me the meaning of August is found in the lazy, sibiliant snoring sounds of Cedar Waxwings, leisurely swirling through the sky in flocks or resting on snags, crests erect and feathers sleek even facing a Lake Superior wind. One by one they flit out to snatch an insect treat in mid-air, but return to the snag like so many avian yoyos. Even when migrants aren’t flying, I’m never bored at the Lakeside Pumping Station when a waxwing flock is near.

Last weekend the waxwings were joined on their favorite snags by Eastern Kingbirds who stopped to rest on their long journey to the tropical rain forest. If waxwings are a study in soft browns and yellows, kingbirds are a study in black and white. Both species have a striking terminal tail band which can be seen at quite a distance—the waxwing’s is vivid yellow, the kingbird’s an equally vivid white. The muted waxwing colors are punctuated by tiny crimson tips to the secondary wing feathers, as the kingbird’s black and white is set off by a red crown. But even though a waxwing’s colorful wingtips are visible year-round, it takes patience, luck, and a well-timed gust of wind to see the red streak on a kingbird’s crown in autumn.

The high-pitched, buzzy call of kingbirds is even similar to that of waxwings, though the kingbird’s call has more energy.

(Recording of an Eastern Kingbird)

Kingbirds are a little bigger than waxwings–8 or 9 inches long compared to 7 inches for a waxwing. And kingbirds weigh about 1 1/2 ounces compared to just one ounce for a waxwing. The body organs of the two species seem to fit inside on opposite principles—a waxwing has a sleek, narrow body, somewhat flattened laterally, whereas a kingbird has a thick-bodied appearance, accentuated by it’s flatness dorso-ventrally. It’s easy to distinguish the species in flight—waxwings generally fly in flocks of 20 to 60 birds, the individuals changing position within the flock as they pass by, making it hard to count them. And although you can’t see the crest in flight, the deep bodied appearance of them as they pass by is easy to see. Kingbirds, on the other hand, fly in small flocks or even alone, and usually stay evenly spaced. They spurt forward in the air like breast-stroke swimmers when their wings are pulled back against their bodies. Their flattened appearance as they pass by is obvious.

Both kingbirds and waxwings eat flying insects and fruit, but they time their meals somewhat differently. Waxwings eat fruit whenever it’s available, from raspberries and cherries in summer to mountain ash berries and crab apples in winter. They also eat flying insects whenever they’re available, from spring through fall. Kingbirds dine exclusively on insects when on their North American breeding grounds, and exclusively on fruits when wintering in the tropics.

Although Kingbirds and waxwings have a lot in common, the two species of birds are perfect opposites when it comes to personality. Waxwings are peaceable and docile–they’re especially easy to take care of when injured because they don’t reinjure themselves trying to escape like many other songbirds do. Waxwings evade trouble rather than fighting it. Kingbirds, on the other hand, are always itching for a fight. They attack anything, from a sparrow to an eagle, that approaches their territory, which they seem to define as anywhere they happen to be. I once watched an Eastern Kingbird take on an adult Bald Eagle–the little kingbird won, too, getting the eagle to turn tail and flee. Kingbirds are feisty and beautiful, waxwings gentle and lovely, and our world would be diminished if we lost either one.

(Recording of a Eastern Kingbird)

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