For the Birds Radio Program: Cedar Waxwings

Original Air Date: July 20, 2004

Cedar Waxwings are gathering in flocks, so many calling at once in soft, sibilant calls that the bushes sound as if they’re purring with sleepy contentment. (5:02) Date confirmed.

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August is the month when the most soft-spoken of songbirds become quietly conspicuous. Cedar Waxwings have a high-pitched, sibilant, wavering call that sounds to my imagination like tiny mice snoring. After louder bird songs quiet down in mid-July, suddenly waxwing voices are more noticeable. And the birds themselves begin gathering in dense berry thickets, so many calling at once that the bushes sound as if they’re purring with sleepy contentment.

This is the bountiful time of year for waxwings. They satisfy their high-carb cravings and get their vitamins dining on berries while getting plenty of exercise and protein sallying forth from bare branches to snap up flying insects in mid-air. I take great pleasure in sitting out on a hot August afternoon watching them, their sleeping snores adding to the lazy, hazy, summery ambience.

Waxwings are unusually convivial birds. Even during the height of the nesting season, when most species are territorial, waxwings get along with their neighbors, two or more pairs sometimes even sharing the same nesting tree. But in one respect they’re somewhat akin to overbearing neighbors in a television sitcom—they often visit neighboring nests to “borrow” nesting material. It’s not a problem when they’re taking fibers and other materials out of nests from the previous year, but occasionally one pair of waxwings will appropriate building materials from other waxwings and from other species, though most of the reports I’ve read about them stealing fibers involved Chipping Sparrow nests. Chippies incorporate a lot of mammal hairs into their nests, so these tiny sparrows spend a lot of time searching out horses and dogs. (I used to watch one Chipping Sparrow pluck fur from my golden retriever’s back while the oblivious dog slept on the porch.) Waxwings virtually always line their nests with soft fibers, and it’s much easier to take these materials from a nearby Chipping Sparrow nest than to find their own horses and dogs.

As if to make up for their excessive borrowing of building supplies, waxwings are very generous with their food, often passing a single morsel back and forth from one bird to another back and forth along a line of birds before one finally eats it. When I was rehabbing, one winter I cared for an injured Bohemian Waxwing at a time when I had a few hundred of them feeding in my yard. I fed the injured bird several mountain ash berries. Within ten or twelve minutes, the berries came out the other end, completely undigested. Apparently the waxy coating on the berries wasn’t broken down by the bird’s digestive juices. But I got an idea after watching my backyard waxwings feeding each other: I tried rolling a berry between my fingers for a few minutes before offering it to the bird, and this process apparently softened the skin, making it digestible. It occurred to me that the charming habit of mouthing a berry back and forth not only cemented a flock’s social bonds; it also helped them digest the food.

Waxwings are handsome birds, with extraordinarily sleek plumage and an elegant crest. Their tail is tipped with bright yellow, and many of their secondary wing feathers are tipped with brilliant red. Statistically, the older a waxwing is, the more of these feather tips it sports. The older a waxwing is, the more appeal it has for members of the opposite sex. Unlike many humans, birds consider age and experience far more sexy than mere youthfulness.

So as I sit back on a lazy afternoon, watching and listening to these convivial birds, I take satisfaction in their pleasant interactions, graceful flight, and interesting behaviors, but most especially in their affirmation that at least for some species, that old TV commercial rings true: You’re not getting older, you’re getting better.