The very sociable Cedar Waxwing
The very sociable Cedar Waxwing
It might seem strange to pick October to highlight a bird usually spotted around here (if at all) in July and August and, sometimes, September. And spot it you should for it’s certainly one of our most stunningly colored birds.
The first Cedar Waxwing I recall seeing was, sadly, on the front end of the car I was driving in, south of Warren. In the company of a bona fide bird lover, he called me over so I could examine it closely. Not surprisingly, the same attention was applied to roadkill — at least in decent condition. (I kept a handful of porcupine quills in the glove compartment until I traded that car in.)
But back to the bird. The Stokes Guide describes it as “one of our loveliest birds, its color so blended and feathers so sleeked, it has the appearance of a skillfully painted carving.” At just 5 3/4″ it is a lovely gentle shade of beige on the head and back melding to a muted yellow belly and then white beneath the tail. It has black wings with white lining and a black mask and chin. What sets this bird apart is the red on each wing tip and yellow at the very end of its tail. The sexes are similarly marked while the youngsters are grayer with blurred streaking down their bellies. They may be found from one coast to the other, into Mexico and further south and north through much of Canada.
I did have a reason for wanting to choose this bird now. It and the Western Waxwing (which has an angry-red head and is found only in the west) are very sociable avians and tend to congregate in large flocks. The noise you hear in the treetops at this season may well be this bird instead of the starling and other blackbirds which do have the same tendency to move in huge noisy flocks.
The Cedar Waxwings feast on fruits and berries and can catch insects when the diet calls for variety, preferring open rural or suburban areas. I’m sure they visited my home when the holly bushes still survived. Now I have fewer berries (the other birds got there first) but they will also eat some flowers and snatch up oozing sap. Insects preferred, depending on availability, include beetles, caterpillars and ants. I found it interesting that the youngsters start out on bugs with berries introduced into their diet a few days later. The nest, generally high up in a tree, is created from grasses, weeds and twigs and then lined with moss, rootlets, fine grass or hair. (When brushing Minor I certainly don’t hesitate to throw the loose hair to the winds.)
Both sexes work to build the nest (often seen stealing materials from the nests of other birds) though only the female incubates the eggs for the required 13 or 14 days. Both parents feed the young who are ready to escape familial ties after a couple of weeks. A second breeding then takes place. It’s worth noting that, except when nesting, these sociable birds almost always forage in large flocks.
Stokes also alerts us that pairing tales place in the flocks of migrating birds in late winter or early spring. Should you be lucky enough to get close to a flock at that time (I haven’t), watch for the strange side-hop display: A Waxwing with food in its bill hops sideways toward another waxwing and passes the food to it. The other waxwing hops away, then back toward the first bird, and passes the food back. One of the birds may bow between hops. Display is repeated until one bird eats the food.
“Side-hop is an important part of courtship. It takes place between two birds when they are in a flock or alone. It is initiated by males and functions to identify a female as a prospective mate. When done to another male, that male may respond with a head-forward. When done to a female, she may leave, join him in the display, or seemingly make no response.”
Mate feeding continues through the incubation period. But once eggs hatch, he comes to the nest to feed her first. Then both adults feed the babies.
Stokes again: “When the nestlings are seven days old, the female may resume courtship behavior. As she prepares to lay a second clutch, the activities of the male may reach a peak as he feeds the fledglings, courts the females, and starts building the second nest.” One busy dad indeed!
Some Cedar Waxwings migrate south in the fall and into the winter, staying in Central America until April or May. Others remain north all winter, flying over large areas as they seek the shifting availability of food. Only when in the breeding stages do they leave their large flocks while some even then have been observed returning briefly to the flock to eat before returning to family duties.
Keep your ears open now, your eyes next summer.
Susan Crossett has lived outside Cassadaga for more than 20 years. A lifetime of writing led to these columns as well as two novels. “Her Reason for Being” was published in 2008 with “Love in Three Acts” following in 2014. Information on all the Musings, her books and the author may be found at Susancrossett.com.