During the last weeks of summer, I was blessed with the great good fortune to come across a flock of Cedar Waxwings. Everyday I followed their morning antics as they socialized, foraged, preened, and was even “buzzed” several times when making too quick a movement or crunched on a twig too loudly for their liking. They were actually remarkably tolerant of my presence but as soon as another person or two appeared on the path, they quickly departed. I think that is often the case with wildlife; one human is tolerable, but two of us is two too many.
The Cedar Waxwings were seen foraging on wildflower seeds and the insects attracted, making them harder to spot as compared to when seen foraging at berries on trees branches. A flock of Cedar Waxwings is called a “museum” or an “ear-full.” The nickname ear-full is apt as they were readily found each morning by their wonderfully soft social trilling. When you learn to recognize their vocalizations, you will find they are much easier to locate.
These sweet songbirds are strikingly beautiful. Dressed in a black mask that wraps around the eyes, with blue, yellow, and Mourning Dove buffy gray-brown feathers, a cardinal-like crest atop the head, and brilliant red wing tips, Cedar Waxwings are equally as beautiful from the front and rear views.
Cedar Waxwings really do have wax wings; the red wing tips are a waxy secretion. At first biologist thought the red tips functioned to protect the wings from wear and tear, but there really is no evidence of that. Instead, the red secondary tips appear to be status signals that function in mate selection. The older the Waxwing, the greater the number of waxy tips. Birds with zero to five are immature birds, while those with more than nine are thought to be older.
Waxwings tend to associate with other waxwings within these two age groups. Pairs of older birds nest earlier and raise more fledglings than do pairs of younger birds. The characteristic plumage is important in choosing a mate within the social order of the flock.
By mid-September there were still seeds and insects aplenty in the wildflower patch that I was filming at when the beautiful Waxwings abruptly departed for the safety of neighboring treetops. Why do I write “safety?” I believe they skeedaddled because a dangerous new raptor appeared on the scene. More falcon-like than hawk, the mystifying bird sped like a torpedo through the wildflower patch and swooped into the adjacent birch tree where all the raptors like to perch. It was a Merlin! And the songbird’s mortal enemy. Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks, too, had been hunting the area, but the other hawks did not elicit the same terror as did the Merlin.
Merlin, Eastern Point
Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks
A small falcon, the Merlin’s short wings allow it to fly fast and hard. The Merlin is often referred to as the “thug” of the bird world for its ability to swoop in quickly and snatch a songbird out of the air. The day after the Merlin appeared, I never again found the Waxwings foraging in the wildlflowers, only in the tree tops.
Within the sociable ear-full, Waxwings take turns foraging. Some perch and preen, serving as sentries while flock-mates dine. Cedar Waxwings mostly eat berries and they love a wide variety. The first half of their name is derived from one of their favorite fruits, the waxy berries of cedar trees. During the breeding season, Waxwings add insects to their diets. Hatchlings are fed insects, gradually switching to berries.
Juvenile Cedar Waxwing with adult Waxwings
If you would like to attract Cedar Waxwings to your garden here is a handy list that I compiled of some of their most favorite fruits and berries –
Dogwood, Juniper, Chokecherry, Cedar, Honeysuckle, Holy, Crabapple, Hawthorn, Serviceberry, Mulberry, Raspberry, Grapes, and Strawberry. Cedar Waxwings are becoming increasingly more prevalent in backyards because people are planting more ornamental flowering and fruiting trees.