For the Birds Radio Program: Cedar Waxwing
When people tell me about their first encounter with Cedar Waxwings, they almost always emphasize one feature more than anything—the bird’s almost unnatural sleekness. I can’t think of another bird’s plumage so universally described as “too smooth to be made up of feathers.” I’m not sure what gives waxwings that elegant smoothness, but it seems as related to magic as to science.
Waxwings are beloved by virtually everyone, even orchard owners and fruit growers (as long as they have their fruit covered with nets), because these birds are so beautiful and pleasant to be around. Their voices are soft and gentle, too high-pitched for many people to hear, but whether or not you can hear the sound, you’re never annoyed by it.
Cedar Waxwings have a “sweet beak,” feeding in summer on serviceberry, strawberry, mulberry, dogwood, raspberries, and other tasty fruits. They eat some fruits well before we humans consider them ripe and palatable—last week I watched one adult waxwing eating Juneberries that were still pink. For protein, waxwings supplement their high-carb diet with mayflies, dragonflies, stoneflies, and other flying insects caught on the wing, but their nestlings thrive on far less protein than most young birds need. Cowbirds occasionally lay their eggs in waxwing nests, but the young cowbirds virtually never reach fledging age because they need so much more protein than waxwing parents feed their young. Waxwings also eat a lot of flower petals—their spring arrival in the upper Midwest virtually always coincides with cherry and apple blossom time.
People are often surprised to notice waxwings eating the petals, but even more surprised to see them sharing these petals. Waxwings very often pass food items from bird to bird in a charming display of camaraderie. When I was rehabbing a Bohemian Waxwing once, I discovered that mountain ash berries passed through its digestive tract intact, giving the bird no nutrition, unless I first rolled the berries between my fingers for a minute or two to soften them. I suspect their habit of sharing berries, with many birds mouthing each one before it’s consumed, helps make their food more digestible as well as cementing their social bonds with one another.
Even a waxwing’s more private dealings with one another involve very little discord—two or three different pairs can nest only a few feet apart in the same tree. They have a rather socialistic viewpoint as far as personal property goes: they are as likely to get the grasses, twigs, cattail down, blossoms, string, horsehair and other nest construction materials from one another’s nests as they are from the original sources.
In keeping with their leisurely approach to life, Cedar Waxwings are among the last birds to commence nesting in summer. As with most birds, waxwings of both sexes prefer the oldest, most successful and experienced mates available. The number of red waxy tips on a waxwing’s secondary wing feathers is roughly correlated with the bird’s age. Because older, more experienced birds are at a premium, they select one another, leaving the less experienced birds to learn the ropes together. The oldest known banded, wild Cedar Waxwing was killed by a car when it was seven years old, but because waxwings wander widely, they aren’t as readily caught by banders as other species, so it’s very likely that many of them live longer than that, sweetening our lives with their gentle beauty.