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By John Tucker

Dan Jordan’s Wild World: Cedar Waxwings


By Dan Jordan,

Another of my favorite birds to photograph, this week’s feature is the cedar waxwing (CWW).  With that black mask covering its eyes, along with the raccoon, the waxwings are outfitted to be nature’s robbers. 

Cedar waxwings get their name from the waxy red tips on their wings.  Most people don’t realize that those red tips are there but close examination of them (if you can get them to hold still) reveals the bright red tips.  The photo to the right shows the red.  The cedar in the name comes from their favorite food, the cedar berry.

Waxwings are very flighty.  Trying to photograph them can be very frustrating.  As soon as you think you have grabbed focus, the bird has taken flight (rapid, energetic, erratic flight, I might add).  This summer I was photographing a flock of cedar waxwings feeding on insects over Ischua Creek and of 1000+ photos, perhaps a dozen photos were sharply focused.  The photo above is from that encounter.

CWW’s prefer berries and fruit over insects and can survive for extended periods on just a fructose laden diet.  We’ve all heard stories or witnessed deer getting intoxicated on fermented apples (check out a future Wild World article on this topic); well, CWW’s also exhibit intoxicated behavior after eating fermented fruit or berries.  I’ve yet to see this behavior but there are lots of anecdotal references in the literature about it.

Interestingly, a flock of CWW’s is known as an ear-full.  That’s right, an ear-full.  What makes that even more interesting is that CWW’s do not have a song.  They make a shrill, high-pitched noise that sounds similar to scraping your fingernails across a chalk board.  It is very faint too.  You’d think that an “ear-full” of anything would make a lot of noise, but that is not the case here.  Another name for a flock of CWW’s is museum.  Perhaps that is a better moniker for them, since we’re all supposed to be “quiet” in a museum.  Neither of these terms roll off the tongue for me, so forgive me if I continue to call them flocks.

Some people refer to CWW’s as Canada robins, cherry birds, and even recellets.  I did not research the origin of these names, nor am I interested.  I am very comfortable with Cedar Waxwings (CWW for short).

There is another species of waxwing, called Bohemian waxwing.  The only one of these I have ever seen is in the Audubon Bird Book.  Maybe one day, I will get the chance to photograph one of the BWW’s.  (Perhaps if I play Bohemian Rhapsody, by Queen with my windows open, I can attract some of the Bohemian variety, he says in jest)

CWW’s can live in very large groups or ear-fulls.  Hundreds of birds (or more) will congregate, at times with other species of non-threatening birds.  They are polite birds too.  When feeding in large groups, they will patiently wait their turn for others to feed.  Contrast this with what you are likely to see at your bird feeder when jays, grackles or woodpeckers are present. (Or me at dinner time, for that matter)

CWW’s are very nimble fliers.  They catch insects on the wing, so they have to be.  In the summertime, watching an ear-full of CWW’s feeding on insects over a creek, river, or pond is very entertaining.  Not only do they change directions rapidly, but they are also very fast.  They reach speeds of 25 miles per hour, not sustained, but for short bursts.

Their lifespan is quite short.  The oldest known CWW in the wild died at age 7 years and one month.  So much for that high fruit diet! During mating season, males sometimes bring their mates flowers.  That’s right, flowers.  Perhaps that is where early humans learned of this practice!  CWW females build the nests, and according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, it takes them 5-6 days involving 2500+ trips to the nest with materials.  That’s dedication.

Before I get into the photo segment of this article, I want to share one more fact with you.  I’ll start with an anecdote.  Two years ago, I was photographing some CWW’s at our home.  When I edited the photos, I noticed that one of the birds had its tail feathers tipped orange rather than the bright yellow of the rest.  I thought it was due to the way the light was hitting the tail in that one photo but then I noticed other photos with the same condition.  So, I researched this and learned that some CWW’s that eat berries from an invasive honeysuckle bush, develop an abundance of red pigment which turns yellow to orange.  The photo to the right shows one of these differently pigmented CWW’s.  This particular bird is a juvenile CWW.  The pattern on its breast and the color of the feathers on its back are indicative of an immature CWW.

So far, only about 1% (or less) of the waxwings that I see have orange tail tips.  I did see multiple of them in a flock at Barnum swamp this fall. 

One of my favorite images of a CWW (and most liked on Facebook) is this next image which shows an adult “walking” down a branch at our home with some sort of morsel in its mouth.  Pretty casual. Maybe, just maybe, it had eaten some fermented berries and was doing a self-imposed sobriety test.

Actually, I have so many favorites!  I get giddy when I get a chance to photograph CWW’s.  They’re so hard to photograph in flight, any sharp photo I get of a CWW in flight is automatically a favorite.  Spoiler alert!  I’ve saved my all-time favorite CWW flight image to be the last one in this article. 

The next photo shows an adult in flight.

And the next image is a prototypical CWW image, one like you might find in the “bird book”.  The backlighting makes its tail tip glow.

I’m running out of my allotment of images I can use, but I have so many more worthy of inclusion.  What to do?

The image to the left was taken at Barnum swamp, near Eldred, PA this August of a pair of CWW’s feasting on elderberries.  The red “waxy” tips of the upper bird are on display in this photo.

OK, just two more images. 

The next is of a CWW that landed directly over my head at the Barnum swamp in August.  Of course, I obliged it and photographed it.

 And the last is of a CWW in flight about to catch a flying insect.

Remember my spoiler alert.  This is by far my favorite image of a CWW in flight.  Not only was I able to freeze the action of its rapid, erratic flight, but I caught the exact moment when it was about to swallow that tiny bug.  Imagine how many of those insects a waxwing must have to consume to survive!

Well, that’s it for another edition of Dan Jordan’s Wild World.  I hope you learned a bit about cedar waxwings and enjoyed the photos.  Keep your eyes out for an “ear-full” of these lovely birds.  If you hear a faint shrill whistle while outdoors.  Look around, it may be a waxwing you are hearing.

Here’s a link to a short video with sounds of the CWW.

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