For the Birds Radio Program: Cedar Waxwing

Original Air Date: July 24, 1996

The prettiest glutton in the bird world is Laura Erickson’s favorite bird of summer. 4:01

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As the rich symphony of bird song in spring and early summer wanes, a quieter, more delicate sound fills the July and August air. Cedar Waxwings make a wavering whisper too quiet for many people to hear, more like a mouse snoring than a bird singing.

Waxwings are equally unassuming in their plumage—soft, subdued brown washed with yellow beneath. It’s not that they can’t produce bright colors. The tail ends in a band of brilliant yellow, and some secondary wing feathers sport a tiny, waxy tip of ruby red. But waxwings are modest about their adornments, preferring simple elegance to ostentatiousness. They were their sleek crest pulled back like a Grace Kelly chignon, setting off lovely masked faces to perfection.

The number of ruby feather tips varies, statistically increasing as waxwings age. Females and males both prefer older, more experienced mates, who have a greater probability of successfully raising young. They mark the passage of years with nature’s most lovely sign of aging.

Waxwing plumage is so smooth it hardly seems possible that it’s composed of individual feathers. At close range they seem almost too perfect to be real. When I was a teacher, I once had an injured waxwing in my classroom for a few days. It spent most of its time perched on my shoulder, and one afternoon accompanied me to a faculty meeting. The teachers apparently thought I was sporting a bird carving until the principal made an emphatic point and the waxwing suddenly turned its head to look directly at her. Her scream still rings in my ears today.

Cedar Waxwings are gentle and confiding with one another, defending virtually no territory and joining together for convivial dining and conversation. Their eating habits are as sweet as they are. The main staple of their diet is fruit, in spring and summer leavened with a generous helping of flower petals. They also eat many insects. During late summer they dart gracefully from branches to snatch insects in mid-air.

They have a charming habit of sharing their food. A large flock may pass a single petal or berry from one bird to the next down a long line and back again until one bird finally swallows the morsel and begins passing the plate all over again. Some birds become so swept up in these jolly gatherings that they eat to excess. My neighbor once brought me a waxwing that he found grounded in his driveway, stuffed so full that its wings couldn’t support its weight. It spit out over a dozen berries and pooped twenty or so times, and then flew off to join its companions again.

Gluttonous habits put waxwings in danger as berries ferment in late summer and fall. They sometimes become intoxicated, especially during cold weather when they can’t identify affected berries by smell. Ornithologists long believed that most birds can’t detect odors, but recent research indicates that waxwings have a fairly well-developed sense of smell, perhaps to avoid at least some of the intoxicating effects of their sugary diet.

The delicate snores of these convivial gluttons fill the late summer air with contentment—a sound to conjure the warmth and fruity richness of the season, and an example to us of how to treat one another with civility and generosity even when crowded together on a hot summer day.