For the Birds Radio Program: Cedar Waxwing

Original Air Date: June 19, 1992

Laura talks about the Cedar Waxwing Days of summer.

Audio missing


The dog days of summer began a lot earlier this year than is usual in the Northland. I don’t like the imagery of calling hot days “dog days”—that makes me think of a poor old dog panting and breathing hard, laying on its side in the hot sun. I much prefer calling these uncomfortably hot days the “Cedar Waxwing” days of summer.

Waxwings are all over in the Northland right now. Bohemian Waxwings left back in April—they’re the winter species that specializes in feeding on mountain ash berries and old crab apples. Cedar Waxwings return north at apple blossom time. Although waxwings are considered fruit- and insect-eating birds, Cedar Waxwings also eat apple and lilac blossoms and other flower petals. Flocks sit high in trees singing their soft, high-pitched, sleepy snore, a sound I equate with pleasant and lazy summer days. It’s only fitting, since Cedar Waxwings are such pleasant and lazy birds. They are laid back about breeding, virtually never bothering to defend any nesting territory against other waxwings. They pig out on berries and petals, sometimes stuffing themselves so full of the sweet foods that they can’t take off. And they’re well-known for eating fermented berries until they become intoxicated. I often end up treating drunken waxwings at the Erickson Detox Center.

If waxwings are laid-back, indolent gluttons, they also have a special charm that redeems them in even the most judgmental person’s mind. Flocks frequently share food, passing berries or flower petals from one bird to the next back and forth down a long line of waxwings until one bird finally swallows the morsel. This charming behavior is found in no other birds, and probably serves two functions: not only does it cement the social bonds among members of the flock, but the constant mouthing of the berries also makes them softer and easier to digest.

Waxwings are extraordinarily attractive birds, with a silky softness to their warm brown plumage. The earth tones of their feathers are highlighted with bright, golden yellow tips on their tail and scarlet red tips on their secondary flight feathers. Waxwings sport an elegant crest, which causes some people displaced to the Northland from further south to mistake them for Tufted Titmice.

The exotic beauty of waxwings makes them appear almost artificial. Back in my teaching days before I had my own children, I once cared for an injured waxwing for a few days. I kept it in my classroom during the day, and the bird was so tame that it sat on my shoulder most of the time. When we had a faculty meeting one afternoon, I decided to bring the bird along rather than sticking it in a cage. The bird sat so still on my shoulder that the other teachers just figure eccentric old Laura was sporting a pretty wood carving, but about 20 minutes into the meeting, right when the principal was asking me a question, the little waxwing took a sudden interest in the discussion and turned his head to face her. That principal let out a scream that got the janitor and several kids running in to help. There are so many words to describe Cedar Waxwings, from charming, interesting, laid-back, and pleasant to gluttons and drunks, but that faculty meeting was the only time I know of when a waxwing could have been described as shocking.