For the Birds Radio Program: Cedar Waxwing

Original Air Date: Aug. 22, 1989

(redone from August 5, 1987)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Cedar Waxwing)

One bird a lot of listeners have been asking me about lately is the Cedar Waxwing. It’s very conspicuous in the Northland this year, perched on telephone wires or dead branches, showing off its sleek soft brown plumage and elegant crest. I often hear waxwings flying over– their call is a high-pitched lisp or rattle, which I always think of as the sound of a tiny mouse snoring.

(Recording of a Cedar Waxwing).

The Cedar Waxwing is popular with many people because of its gentle nature as well as its beauty. One ornithologist, Arthur Cleveland Bent, described it as “the perfect gentleman of the bird world. There is in him a refinement of deportment and dress, his voice is gentle and subdued, he is quiet and dignified in manner, sociable, never quarrelsome.”

Waxwings are among the very few species of songbirds that maintain no territory at all except their actual nest. Although they aren’t really colonial nesters, sometimes several pairs will nest in the same tree–drawn together, perhaps, by the same impulse that brings campers close together in a large campground. They nest later than many species, and are irregular and unpredictable in their wanderings.

Waxwings are unique in their extraordinary appetite. Some have literally stuffed themselves to death on berries or apple blossoms. John James Audubon wrote of some caged waxwings that had “eaten of apples until suffocation deprived them of life in the course of a few days. When opened afterwards, they were found to be gorged to the mouth.” Not a pretty sight–even on the radio.

If waxwings are gluttons, they’re at least sociable about it. A mated pair is often seen passing a berry or petal back and forth, back and forth. Ornithologists have yet to determine whether one sex or the other initiates this behavior, and what makes one bird finally quit the game and swallow the treat. Once in a while a whole flock will engage in this, passing a berry back and forth along a line of birds.

Because waxwings are so gregarious, they can be destructive of cherry orchards. The Cedar Waxwing’s close relative, the Bohemian Waxwing, is considered a bad omen in Europe, and sometimes called the “pest bird.”

This time of year Cedar Waxwings eat a lot of berries, but, like just about all songbirds, they feed their young insects exclusively for the first several days. Baby birds need a tremendous amount of protein because of their rapid growth–waxwings reach adult size less than 18 days after hatching. To grow this fast, they have an extraordinary digestive system. Margaret Morse Nice, one of the finest observers of birds ever, noted that food can pass through a young waxwing in 16 minutes flat. It’s lucky they’re not humans–that would amount to an awful lot of diapers.

(Recording of a Cedar Waxwing).

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”