For the Birds Radio Program: Cedar Waxwing

Original Air Date: July 2, 1997

Cedar Waxwings are one of the Northland’s most conspicuous summer birds. 3:53

Audio missing


(I think this is the right script for this date)

The sibilant lisp of Cedar Waxwings is one of the soothing sounds of summer. These elegant birds are pleasing in every way. Their voice is ever soft, gentle, and low enough that they never awaken anyone at four in the morning—as a matter of fact, their sound is singularly compatible with sleep, sounding as they do like tiny mice snoring. They are so sociable that they maintain virtually no territory at all against one another, occasionally even building active nests just inches apart. And they are one of the sleekest, most handsome birds in the world, their soft, grayish-brown plumage so perfectly smooth that it doesn’t seem to be made of feathers. Although waxwings wear understated colors, they sport a dapper crest, a vivid yellow band at the tip of the tail, and tiny but brilliant red tips to the secondary wing feathers, fashion accents that give them a look of sophistication and refinement.

Cedar Waxwing behavior is as endearing as their look is lovely. They arrive in the Northland each spring just as apple and cherry blossoms open, and improbably pig out on the flower petals. Flocks feed together, sharing the abundance to the point that individuals are sometimes observed passing petals down the line to one another until finally one bird’s hunger wins out over its generosity and it swallows the offering. The birds seem to revel in these dinner parties, all sharing and eating and talking at once.

Apple petals grow scarce as summer approaches, and waxwings switch to a protein-based diet in the form of insects. They feed their babies some fruits but a great many more soft-bodied caterpillars and other bugs to help build their growing bodies. As the fruits of summer ripen, both young and old waxwings fatten up on berries. The phrase “you are what you eat” seems singularly appropriate for birds sweetened in disposition by a diet sweetened with flower petals and fruits.

As summer proceeds, flocks of waxwings spend lazy days sitting on telephone wires and tree snags, delicately and gracefully fluttering out one by one to snatch flying insects. Sometimes the whole flock takes off en masse and flies in a synchronized swirl in a wide circle, returning in a minute or two to the exact same branches they left. For relatively small songbirds, their actions are slow and leisurely, and you just know that if they talked, they would speak in a gentle Southern drawl.

When waxwing babies leave the nest, they already have the sleekness of their parents, but their underside plumage is streaked rather than clear. Their inexperience leads to many mishaps, and cats and other predators take a heavy toll. But little by little, they gain in strength and wisdom, and many survive to adulthood to maintain the species.

Waxwings take migration in a more laid-back fashion than other birds. They start heading south in late July or early August, but stop here and there to dine and chat before moving on once again, and even as they move on they don’t seem in any particular rush. They wend their way through migration and through life enjoying the journey itself fully as much as the destination. Wise are the humans who follow their course.