Cedar Waxwings

September 30, 2015

Written by Thom Parrish

Fall is my absolute favorite time of year to spend outdoors. The American Parkway becomes a beautiful and different world to visit altogether. Not only do the sights and smells change, but you can also hear the calls and songs of migratory birds, announcing the change of season with their arrival.

This past Sunday morning, while walking the furthest up-river section of the river view trail, I heard a cacophony of high pitched whistles. My eyes roved over the tree tops searching for the culprits and there in a large valley oak draped with curtains of grape vines I found the source. Hundreds of little cedar waxwings busily flitted about, joyously gulping down wild grapes.

The cedar waxwing, Bombycilla cedrorum, is an absolutely beautiful medium starling-sized bird. To call them song birds though is a bit of a stretch. They give out shrill tea kettle like whistle bursts. Waxwings are highly social birds and travel in groups of hundreds. You can imagine how that sounds up close, hundreds of near dog-whistle pitched brain piercing whistles. It’s no wonder why a group of cedar waxwings together is actually called an “earful” of waxwings. I didn’t make that up. As soon as I caught sight of the waxwings however, I forgot all about the noise, their beauty more than made up for the audile nuisance. There is little sexual dimorphism in waxwings, other than the female being slightly larger. Both male and female waxwings sport sleek silky plumage, ranging in seamless shades of gray and rusty brown to their lightly colored lemon yellow bellies. Their crown is peaked with a crest and covering their eyes a clean black mask. The very tips of their short tails appear as though dipped in bright yellow. As well the tips of some of the secondary feathers of these birds appear as though dipped in red wax (hence the name); amazingly they actually secrete a waxy red substance. The exact function for this red waxy secretion is unknown, but some believe it may play a role in attracting a mate.

Cedar waxwings are native to North America. They can be found year round further north up into Oregon and Washington. Their summer breeding grounds are found all over the boreal forests of British Columbia. During the bitter cold of the fall and winter large numbers of cedar waxwings travel south to settle in warmer riparian woodlands like the American Parkway. Cedar waxwings are listed as a species of least concern, LC.

Waxwings love berries. They will eat insects too, but they really go bananas for berries, sometimes eating nothing but berries for several months. I can’t think of another North American bird with a higher fruit eating diet. Among their favorites are cedar berries (again hence the name), toyon berry(Christmas berry), winter berry, juniper, serviceberry, crab apple, and grape. Because they eat somuch fruit, waxwings will occasionally even become intoxicated from eating too many ripe berries that have begun to ferment! Cedar waxwings are famous for hitting windows as a result of drunk flying, sometimes even in large groups all together. Watching a cedar waxwing berry eating party can be pretty entertaining. They will pick the berries one at a time, toss them up and swallow them whole. A common behavior that is fun to watch is the waxwings will often pass berries to one another.

During courtship the male will offer gifts of a berry or a flower petal held in his beak to the female. The best time to see these wax beauties in the preserve is during the morning hours. Take a walk to the areas where there are lots of grape vines and listen for the high-pitched “seeee! seeee!”.