CEDAR WAXWING: A NATION-WIDE WANDERER


I have been birding for neigh on forty years, but never have been able to explain why I am so drawn to birds, birding, or, for that matter, nature itself. As a writer, I have attempted to address this issue, but never to my complete satisfaction. Perhaps it is more a matter of experiences than
reasons.

For me, even more exciting than the somewhat predictable arrival of Spring and Fall migrants is the wholly unpredictable appearance of irruptive species. When I lived in New Jersey, this often meant hoping that the next Autumn would bring a winter finch invasion, but in deep-south Texas, where I have lived since 2002, that is not a realistic expectation. However, there is another species whose unpredictable wanderings I now hope for with equal delight: the Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum).

The Cedar Waxwing occurs from central Canada south through North America. They are 6-7 inches long and weigh just over an ounce, which makes them slightly smaller than their close relative, but much less wide spread, Bohemian Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus). All waxwings, including the Japanese Waxwing (Bombycilla japonica) of northeast Asia, eat berries and fruit year-round. Perhaps this fact at least partly explains the irruptive wanderings of the Cedar Waxwing as berry/fruit production can vary greatly from year to year and place to place. They also eat insects when present, and feed them and fruit to their nestlings.

Their preferred habitat is open woodlands with water nearby as the sugars of the fruit make them perpetually thirsty. Not surprisingly, Cedar Waxwings often frequent golf courses, especially courses that do not use chemical pesticides. They are also noted for passing fruit from one to another and back again. This habit often starts soon after the young birds fledge. A couple will likewise pass bits of fruit, flower petals, or even insects as part of their courtship activities. Late in the season, when fruit has been on the vine for an extended time, the waxwings eating the fruit can become intoxicated. In fact, John James Audubon reported catching inebriated Cedar Waxwings by hand. (I could find nothing in the literature addressing whether they experience hangovers.)

Cedar Waxwing nests are typically built of grasses and twigs, are lined with softer materials such as plant down, and tend to be 5 to 20 feet above the ground in deciduous trees. Four to six oval, bluish-gray eggs with irregular dark blotches constitute a typical clutch. They usually hatch 12 to 16 days after the last egg is laid, and the young typically fledge 14 to 18 days later. The recently fledged young resemble their parents in size and shape, but are heavily streaked below. Because Cedar Waxwings rely so heavily on fruit, they often do not begin nesting until most other songbirds have young. By the same token, they can continue to nest later into the season. As a result, Cedar Waxwings often have multiple broods despite starting to breed well after other species.

The male and female Cedar Waxwings can be separated by throat color: the males have extensive black in their throats while the females have brown throats with some black possible.

All the above is helpful in becoming familiar with this species, but for me to watch Cedar Waxwings is to know them.

I saw my first Cedar Waxwings in the early 1970s. At that time I taught at a community college in northern New Jersey and would spend my summers exploring the western United States. Although I was born and raised in the east, my earliest birding occurred during these sojourns. Thus it was that on July 16, 1972, while enjoying the majestic vista of Mount Moran across Lake Jackson in Teton National Park, I heard a faint, lispy sound coming from nearby wild cherry trees. As I moved closer to the trees, I spied a flock of small, tan-colored birds with striking yellow and red wing markings and a prominent yellow terminal tail band. I did not know what they were as I was relatively new to birding, but they initially reminded me of a cross between a Tufted Titmouse and a Northern Cardinal. Fortunately, with an assist from my Peterson Guide to Western Birds, I was able to identify them as Cedar Waxwings.

At the time, I little realized that Cedar Waxwings were found across North America. That Fall, back in New Jersey, I once again heard that soft, lispy call, but this time it was coming from an Autumn Olive bush in my backyard. This flock stayed for the better part of the week, leaving as soon as they had depleted the berries. More recently, while co-leading a group during the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival to the Valley Land Fund lots on South Padre Island, a participant said that if he had been back home he would have sworn that he had just heard Cedar Waxwings. (He did not appreciate how far ranging Cedar Waxwings are anymore than I did as a newer birder.) About that time I, too, heard them and we quickly found a group feeding in a Brazilian Pepper bush.

Perhaps my most memorable Cedar Waxwing experience was on February 7, 1977 as I was birding at Skylands Manor in northern New Jersey. Again, I stumbled upon a flock of Cedar Waxwings, but one among them was different. It was a bit larger, more gray brown than warm brown, and with dark cinnamon undertail coverts. This time, I knew what it was immediately because 11 months earlier to the day I had traveled to Gaza, New Hampshire, to see a flock of 37 Bohemian Waxwings. Indeed, I later learned that this bird had been discovered earlier in the week.

These days, my ears are well attuned to that lispy call. In fact, I now look forward to finding flocks of these birds, especially as the days shorten later in the year. I certainly cannot predict their movements, but that only makes them all the more appreciated when they do appear.

 Mike Hannisian