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Waxwing Winter

On a catch-your-breath cold morning in mid-January, I walked for a mile in silence. Only when I reached Coyote Bench did the forest come alive with music and color. A flock of cedar waxwings, whistling while they worked, harvested wild grapes from vines directly above my head.

They look like perfect ladies and gentlemen in their sleek, unruffled, reddish-brown coats, accented by their black masks and crested heads. Not a feather is out of place. Their gray tails banded in yellow, wax-like red tips on their secondary wing feathers, and golden bellies add to their overall handsome appearance.

Juveniles, on the other hand, look slightly disheveled, as I discovered last November when I watched a flock of 21 adults and a juvenile near Coyote Bench. A few of the adults fed on wild grapes then, but most flew into a nearby tree and sat quietly as if they, like me, were absorbing the sunlight, their breasts pointing toward the sun while they groomed themselves. The juvenile, which remained on the outskirts of the flock, had no discernible crest or red wing tips and its breast and back was speckled with reddish-brown, but already it possessed the serious demeanor of the adults.

Of course, neither adults nor juveniles appear dignified when they are drunk. According to a Massachusetts witness back in the nineteenth century, cedar waxwings eating fermented black cherry fruits “looked like their feathers were brushed the wrong way…some tumbled to the ground with outspread wings and attempted to run away. Still others tottered on the branches with wings continuously flapping, as though for balance.” Furthermore, they “kept up a continual hissing noise, such as snakes might do.”

Three reports from California in the mid-twentieth century were even more startling. At least 42 cedar waxwings from a flock of 200 died in Los Angeles after stuffing themselves with the fermented fruit of the ornamental date palm. That same palm species killed cedar waxwings in Bakersfield and so did mulberries which they had eaten. According to H. Elliott McClure, after feeding on a mulberry bush, a cedar waxwing “dropped to the ground, flopped over, spun around and died in about 30 seconds.” The victims of both the palm and mulberry had inflamed intestines, enlarged blood vessels, and a blotchy liver, he said.

Many more accounts of “drunken” cedar waxwings and other birds have been recorded by casual observers, but late in the twentieth century the toxicologists weighed in when several cedar waxwings fell from a rooftop after eating over wintered hawthorn fruits in central Indiana and died. Although the birds were technically drunk, the toxicologists reported, they died from their fall, not from alcohol poisoning. Unlike humans, such mishaps are due to their preference for fruit, not alcohol.

In fact, fruit makes up 84% of the cedar waxwings’ diet. Because they are the primary consumers and dispersers of cedar or juniper berries, they were named cedar waxwings. They have also been nicknamed “cedar-birds” as well as “cherry-birds” in recognition of their fondness for wild black cherries. We don’t have juniper shrubs on our mountain but we have many mature wild black cherry trees. As soon as the cherries ripen in mid-August, I hear their high-pitched, whistling calls as they feed, hidden in the lush canopy above me.

Although they may be present at any time of the year, I think of them primarily as late fall and winter birds when they eat the frozen, dried fruits of whatever remains–Japanese barberries, Japanese privet berries, multiflora rosehips, wild apples, Hercules’ club berries, and the ever-popular wild grapes. Last autumn I was worried when I noticed that the wild grape crop was sparse. But throughout much of the winter, I was surprised at how adept they were at finding every last wild grape.

I especially treasure the memory of a brilliant November afternoon when dozens and dozens of waxwings ate wild grapes from vines draped high in the trees in our deer exclosure. A couple European starlings and American robins briefly joined in, but it was mostly a cedar waxwing extravaganza as one or another flung itself skyward almost as an ode to joy before sailing down to pluck more grapes. Lighting up like torches in the slanting sunlight, their golden tail bands flashing, they brightened the drab gray overstory of the leafless woods.

After that, I saw them almost every day somewhere on the mountain and in mid-December on my Christmas Bird Count I found a flock of 31 cedar waxwings at the Far Field and another 50 in our 10-year-old regenerating forest.

By February not much was left of the wild grape crop so the waxwings supplemented the grapes with multiflora rosehips in the cut-over woods and frozen wild apples in our yard. But the most amazing view I had of cedar waxwings last winter was on Penn State’s University Park campus below the Hub where a row of Callery pears is planted. The small trees were covered with hundreds of waxwings that didn’t budge as I walked past. No one else seemed aware of these lovely birds only a few feet away even though they continually swooped in and out at eye level, whistling their keening calls.

Their calls are an important device for keeping the flock together, especially when they suddenly take off on long flights to another fruit source. Their preference for fruit, in turn, dictates their flocking, nomadic life style. Throughout the year they move from fruit source to fruit source and delay breeding until summer when seasonal fruits are abundant. They have no concept of defending a territory. When they breed, they nest in loose clusters and continue to congregate in flocks at fruit crops away from their nesting areas.

But each couple is monogamous from spring until late summer and develops strong pair bonds by performing what ornithologists call the “courtship dance” or “courtship-hopping.” Usually the male approaches the perched female with a small item such as a fruit or insect in his bill and hops sideways to her as he gives her his “gift.” She, in turn, hops away and then back and returns his “gift.” Again he hops away, often bowing, hops back and the “gift-giving” back and forth is repeated as often 12 times. After the proverbial “billing and cooing,” they copulate.

Cedar waxwings judge each other’s age and suitability by the number and size of the red tips on their wings. They don’t engage in May and September relationships–older females mate with older males and immature males with immature females. After a prolonged courtship (in bird terms), nest-selection and then building begins in early to late June. Although the female seems to choose the nest site, usually at the edge of a wooded area and preferably in a fruit orchard or young pine plantation near other waxwing nests, they first fly from potential site to potential site and at each one, she perches in the fork of the tree or shrub and makes “nest-shaping” motions.

Both gather the nearest available nest materials, but she builds the open cup nest in trees and shrubs as low as three feet and as high as 50 feet from the ground. Then she lays 4 to 5 pale blue or blue-gray eggs splotched with black and gray and incubates them for 12 days. During that time, the male feeds her. He also guards her and her nest from a nearby high perch.

Once the eggs hatch, she broods the naked young while he brings mostly insect food to them for the first three days. Then he adds fruit to their diet. By the time they reach fledging age (15 days), they are on an almost wholly fruit diet. If they raise a second brood, the male does the fledgling feeding for a week or more. But the youngsters also form into small flocks with neighboring youngsters as soon as four days after fledging.

Unlike many North American songbirds, cedar waxwings are thriving and even moving into new areas. For instance, here in Pennsylvania cedar waxwing numbers tripled from 1965 to 1990. Scientists hypothesize that such increases are due to an abundance of edge habitat which favors the survival of fruit-bearing trees and shrubs. Then too, more and more people in rural and suburban areas are planting both native and non-native fruit-bearing shrubs and trees for themselves and wildlife.

On the other hand, such plantings along busy highways can be lethal to cedar waxwings. At least two reports–one in Texas and another in Virginia–documented the death of hundreds of cedar waxwings trying to feed on the fruit of silverberry (Eleagnus pungens). The slaughter by car near Richmond, Virginia was particularly high. During the spring of 2001 more than 1,600 cedar waxwings were killed as they flew through heavy traffic to feed on the fruit.

Because of their love for fruit and for infestations of insects, which they often catch on the wing after flying from a perch as flycatchers do, they are also victims of pesticide poisoning. In British Columbia, 52 waxwings died and 27 were partially paralyzed after feeding in an orchard that had been sprayed with parathion and in Nevada four died from Sevin and Diazinon that had been sprayed to control elm leaf beetles. Wild threats to cedar waxwings include the usual suspects–sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks and merlins. Near nests, cedar waxwings dive at blue jays, common grackles, and house wrens, all of which may prey on eggs and nestlings.

Even though cedar waxwings are common here during the winter, wandering flocks can be found almost anywhere in North and even Central America. For example, of the many cedar waxwings banded at Powdermill Nature Reserve, near Ligonier, Pennsylvania, six were recovered in Mexico and one in Guatemala.

Cedar waxwings are the most congenial of birds and I am happy that at least a couple flocks usually spend the fall and winter on our mountain, seemingly undeterred by snow and cold. But I have yet to see what naturalist William Brewster once reported. One first of March he saw members of a large flock of waxwings “chasing and capturing whirling snowflakes, at which they launched out in quick succession from the upper branches of a tall elm.” Maybe it is waxwings, not juncos, that should be called “snow birds.”

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