(by Cathy Carnes, Oconto, WI January 2022)
It’s a beautiful snowy day as we watch a flock of Cedar Waxwings flitting through the crabapple trees in a friend’s yard. They eagerly feast on small plump apples that hang like red rubies from the snow-covered branches. Feeding with restless energy, they move in waves through the trees.
They are indeed a beautiful bird, with a history. Consider the moniker ‘waxwings’—where did it come from? According to What It’s Like to be a Bird by David Sibley (Sibley), the bird was named for the small red tips on its inner wing feather. These red wing tips reminded early naturalists of the red sealing wax used on important letters.
Cedar Waxwing enjoying a fruity snack in Manitowoc, WI. Courtesy of Joel Trick.
As the Cedar Waxwings flit through the trees, the cold morning light reveals the soft yellow brown of their backs, heads, and jaunty crest of head feathers. A dashing black ‘mask’ edged in white sweeps across the eyes, giving them a roguish look. The bellies are a soft yellow and the wings mostly dark gray. In addition to their red-tipped wing feathers, they have a yellow tipped tail, which adds more color to the sleek palette.
I listen for their two common calls. TheCornellLab website All about Birds describes it as a high-pitched, trilled bzeee and a sighing whistle that is about a half-second long, and often rising in pitch at the beginning.
Crab apples may seem too big and unmanageable, but according to Sibley, the bird’s wide mouth allows it to swallow the fruit whole. Its tongue, with inward-facing barbs, helps pull the fruit into its mouth and throat. In winter, according to the Cornell website, they also eat mistletoe, juniper, mountain ash, honeysuckle, hawthorn, and other fruits. In the summer, they feast on serviceberry, cherries, strawberry, mulberry, dogwood, raspberries, and insects.
Cedar Waxwings are a social bird. They like each other’s company and travel in flocks to search for fruit. According to Alan Haney’s (Haney) Jewels of Nature, Delightful Birds I Have Known, pairs do separate from the flock for nesting, but even then, nesting is often done in groups. The birds have a rather elaborate interactive courtship ritual. The male hops toward a female and offers her an object e.g., a flower petal, small leaf, or insect. She may show her interest through a little dance, then take and return the object to her suitor. They may even touch beaks. Once mated, the females lay 2 to 6 eggs in a cup-shaped nest. Both parents feed the young: insects, when very young and added fruits as the chicks get older.
According to Haney, Cedar Waxwings can be found year-round across the northern U.S. and as far south as the Carolinas. In summer they range into the lower Canadian provinces from coast to coast. They overwinter across all of the U.S. and Central American and south to Columbia, South America. Their broad range gives us a chance to see them throughout the year.