Cedar Waxwing Dossier

by Carl Strang

One delightful bird which can be seen in northeast Illinois throughout the year is the cedar waxwing. Today I share my dossier for the species, consisting entirely of my own observations. Though references are valuable it also is important, I think, to keep track of one’s own experiences with a species.

Cedar waxwings are smaller than robins but larger than sparrows, crested, soft brown and yellow in color with bright yellow follow-me bands on the tail tips.

Waxwing, Cedar

My principal childhood memory is of waxwings that nested around brushy thickets and willow clumps along the Tippecanoe River near Monterey, IN. Adults hunted insects in flycatcher fashion from bare twigs over the river. In DuPage County they are evident in wandering flocks through all parts of the year except the breeding season. They travel in flocks, staying one to many days in an area and feeding on berries in fall and winter. This also occurred in Cumberland County, PA. Mountain-ash berries were a favorite food in both places. Also consumed are dogwood, and buckthorn berries. Flock cohesion is aided by the bright-yellow tips of the tail feathers, and by the unique high-pitched thin contact call. First winter birds have breasts striped longitudinally with cream and the soft brown adults’ breast color. At the Willowbrook Wildlife Center clinic, waxwings frequently came in with broken wings and other injuries suffered in collisions with windows. In the cages they showed an open-mouthed threat display, possibly made more effective by the black facial markings. In mid-September at Herrick Lake, a single waxwing perched in an old-field treetop gave a single loud note and flew away into thicker trees. Several seconds later a sharp-shinned hawk flew by the waxwing’s original perch, heading in the same direction. (This first paragraph, written from memory, established the dossier in the early 1980’s. Subsequent additions begin with date codes.)

When not feeding, cedar waxwings typically perch high in trees.

30OC86. Willowbrook Back 40. Waxwings feeding heavily from honeysuckle (berries and leaves still on bushes).

16OC87. First autumn appearance of a flock at Willowbrook Back 40.

13JA88. Lots of waxwings in Back 40.

27OC88. Feeding on honeysuckle berries, Willowbrook Back 40.

13DE88. Waxwings abundant in Back 40, stuffing down rose hips.

3SE89. Mixed young and old waxwings eating honeysuckle berries, Island Park, Geneva.

JA99. Waxwing flocks frequently at Willowbrook. Eating, among other things, Asiatic bittersweet (Celastrus) berries.

11MR99. Last of winter waxwings noted. Not seen again at Willowbrook until 25MY. Then after 1JE another gap until 12&20JL. Became a frequent visitor again in early August.

These waxwings are drinking meltwater where snow is being warmed on a roof at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Much energy is saved by drinking, even if the water is cold, instead of eating snow.

7JA00. Waxwing eating buckthorn berries.

31JA00. Waxwing, again at Willowbrook, again eating buckthorn berries.

8FE00. Waxwings eating buckthorn berries at Willowbrook.

17FE00. Several waxwings on the ground eating snow (buckthorn berries available on bushes nearby).

19MY01. Many flocking waxwings spread out over a large area at the Arboretum, mainly in treetops in forest as well as more open areas.

12MR06. Cedar waxwings delicately picking anthers from silver maple flowers in the yard. [Note: studies have shown that waxwings use protein from pollen to render certain berries more digestible]

13JE06. Tri-County State Park. Cedar waxwing working on a nest in the topmost leaf cluster in a 25-30-foot box elder within 30 yards of Brewster Creek. Weaving, using long slender strands, at least some of which are stripped from grape vines. Spending considerable time with each strand. Mate perched in same cluster of trees. Bird completely concealed when weaving.

This is the tree where waxwings built a nest at (then) Tri-County State Park in 2006.

16JE06. The nest looks complete, a significant lump in the first branching of twigs about a foot from the tip.

22MY08. Fullersburg. An interesting display between 2 cedar waxwings, appears highly stereotyped. They were perched side by side well up in a tree in SW Butler Woods. They took turns quickly hopping away from the other bird a few inches, and returning, at which point the two birds touched or nearly touched beaks, which were angled up. Each of these cycles (or half-cycles, for each bird) took 1-2 seconds, and there were perhaps 20 reps that I observed (i.e. at least 10 per bird). At first they faced the same way, at some point one turned to face the other way and they continued. Eventually one moved to a different twig, but still was close. [Note: this is called the Side-hop display in the Stokes bird behavior guide, and is part of courtship].

6JL09 Mayslake. 14 cedar waxwings foraging like swallows out over May’s Lake. (This was repeated over several days.)

1JA10. Hidden Lake. Waxwings and robins feeding on buckthorn berries.

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5 Comments

  1. Meera said,

    January 14, 2011 at 9:34 am

    Carl,

    I’ve been reading you for a few months now (I think I followed you over from Chicago Wildlife News, but I honestly can’t remember) and just wanted to tell you what a pleasure it is to see one of these dossiers pop up. They’re one of my favorite recurring features on your site.

    Happy weekend!
    –Meera

    • natureinquiries said,

      January 15, 2011 at 7:25 am

      Thanks, Meera,
      That’s good to know. Sometimes I wonder how different categories of posts are regarded.

      • Meera said,

        January 15, 2011 at 9:35 pm

        I like them especially because I’m a beginning birder, and it helps me see how valuable (and interesting) sustained observations of the same species are. Since that’s the kind of birding (focused on behavior and context) I’m most interested in anyway, it’s nice to have a model for it.

  2. jomegat said,

    January 14, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    My understanding is that buckthorn (an invasive alien) is not good for our native species. They derive next to no nutrition from the berries and are rewarded with diarrhea which I imagine must flush other nutrients from their bodies as well (and plants more buckthorn in the process).

    • natureinquiries said,

      January 15, 2011 at 7:23 am

      Thanks, JT, All of that is true, and it’s not just waxwings. In my area, robins and starlings (and occasional others) also pig out on buckthorn berries and spread the seeds around. It seems to happen more as the winter goes on, which makes me wonder whether there is some qualitative change making the berries better from their perspective, or whether more preferred foods simply are gone. (The same question comes up in the sudden interest our deer and cottontails take in browsing poison ivy in February).


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