For the Birds Radio Program: Baby waxwing

Original Air Date: Aug. 21, 1995

When a baby Cedar Waxwing with a serious deformity wants to stay alive, Laura Erickson isn’t the person to give up on it. 4:02

Audio missing


I’m sitting at my computer typing with one hand as a baby Cedar Waxwing nestles in my other hand. It’s hard typing with just my left hand under the easiest of circumstances, and such a dear, warm little soul distracting me makes it doubly hard to write. But then again, such a dear, warm little soul certainly gives me an easy topic to write about.

As much as I enjoy helping little birds that need me, and as much as I learn from them, I decided to let my permit expire this year–I’ve been too burned out by the everyday burdens and heartaches of rehabbing. But somehow I couldn’t tum down a baby waxwing with an awful deformity. Unfortunately, this is exactly the kind of bird that’s hardest on me–she’s so friendly and interested in the world, and so easy to get emotionally connected to, but her prognosis is terrible.

For some unknown reason, her skin is only membrane thin, and her inflated respiratory air sacs push the skin out so she looks like a living, breathing blimp, something out of Gary Larson’s Far Side. You can see her trachea, esophagus, lungs, and ribs right through the inflated skin. Since she’s 90% air anyway, I’m calling her Arial.

I cut up one of my husband’s‘ handkerchiefs into a bunch of little bandages that put some pressure on the sacs–I’m hoping that with a proper diet and supplemental vitamins eventually the skin will thicken enough to put the proper pressure on the air sacs itself. If she wasn’t in such bad shape, the bandages would be comical–from the front she looks like she’s wearing a babushka. Meanwhile, she’s getting tiny doses of amoxicillin several times a day to ward off infection, and I have to hold her in my hand or prop her up in her cool-whip container nest to keep her neck in a natural position since the air sacs push it down. Her black eyes look up into mine with trust and expectation, and she gobbles down meal worms and blueberries with gusto, so I certainly can’t give up on her.

This time of year, when many species have been done nesting for a full month, Cedar Waxwing babies are still in the nest or just starting to fledge. Adults and fledglings perch on wires or in trees, sallying forth to catch flying insects, their soft, sibilant snoring sounds perfect background music for a lazy August day. Adult waxwings have extraordinarily sleek plumage, their crest and black face mask giving them an aura of elegance. Bright red and yellow together would look gaudy on most birds, but waxwings limit these bright colors to tiny wing and tail feather tips, giving themselves a bit of a jaunty air while maintaining elegance and refinement.

Baby waxwings have streaked breasts and no red feather tips on their secondary wing feathers, but are easily recognized by their baby crest and the bright yellow tips on their tail feathers. The inside of a baby waxwing’s mouth is red, and in direct sunlight a beautiful violet stripe lines the outer edge. Parent waxwings and some humans find these hungry mouths irresistible–when a baby opens wide and makes its high-pitched begging calls, its caretaker can’t help but search for food to stuff into it. Arial needs food often during the day, so I bring her with when I’m up at Hawk Ridge. She’s too young and innocent to be a good hawk-watcher, but the dozens of waxwings calling as they feed on berries at the main overlook lull her to sleep while I do the counting.

Even sound asleep, a Cedar Waxwing makes fine company. I only hope I do her as much good as she does me.