For the Birds Radio Program: Late Summer Cedar Waxwings
Most songbirds are at the peak of their conspicuousness in spring and early summer, when they’re in full song and wearing their most gorgeous feathers. Cedar Waxwings quietly go against the grain in every way.
Adult waxwing plumage is softly elegant year round—muted browns and grays with soft yellow on the underbelly, accentuated with a smart but tasteful black mask, bright but tiny spots of red on the tips of some of their secondary feathers, and a clean, bright yellow tail tip. Their crest is far more understated than the crest of a jay or cardinal, and they tend to hold it down to lessen its impact. It’s hard to believe they have individual feathers, so sleek is their plumage. This year’s young birds have streaked undersides and their crests often haven’t quite grown in. They aren’t as sleek as adults but share their gentle, serious aspect, as if they were already inhabited by an old soul, reminding me a little of Haley Joel Osment or Dakota Fanning.
Year round, Cedar Waxwings are tasteful and elegant, yet never lord it over lesser birds. Their soft, sibilant call, which always makes me think of tiny mice snoring, is never demanding, perhaps because Cedar Waxwings exhibit little or no territoriality. Sometimes they quietly bicker when one bird gets too close to another’s nest, but that’s because some seem to lack any sense of ownership at all, so they’re among the most likely birds to appropriate one another’s nest materials. But squabbles between Cedar Waxwings are relatively tame affairs, more on the order of William F. Buckley discussions than professional wrestling events, and they quickly move on without holding grudges. More often than not, waxwings seem to make their sounds in a spirit of cooperation rather than competitiveness, though in a raucous, noisy world, their soft voices are hard to hear unless you’re paying attention.
Cedar Waxwings are sociable and nomadic, as are most fruit specialists. Fruit is “patchy” in distribution, abundant enough on a single tree to feed dozens, and when it’s depleted from one area, the many eyes in a flock help waxwings find a new supply more quickly.
This time of year waxwings gather in fruit trees and shrubs along with robins, Red-eyed Vireos, catbirds, and late orioles, satiating themselves on autumn abundance. Just as sugars in grapes ferment to make wine, so do sugars in other fruits and berries, and sometimes a flock of waxwings becomes intoxicated. This sounds and looks amusing until they start crashing into buildings, cars, and even tree branches. The various alcohols and other organic products of these fermentation processes can be not just mind-numbing but toxic. It would be good for people to avoid planting these late season fruit trees, especially mountain ash, near windows and roads, since we can’t card birds and they haven’t developed a designated flyer system that works.
Sometimes a handful of Cedar Waxwings remain in the northernmost counties of northern states all winter, though along Lake Superior, they’re usually replaced by their more exotic relatives, Bohemian Waxwings. Right now in September, Cedar Waxwings are abundant and as conspicuous as they can be, as thrilling for those who pay attention as fall colors. And like fall colors, they’ll soon disappear, so enjoy them while you can.