Saturday, September 18, 2010

Cedar Waxwing

I am not going to beg to differ with John James Audubon. I am going to be presumptuous, and differ with him outright.

I have been watching Cedar Waxwings. During much of the year they are legendary consumers of fruits and berries. But from mid summer to early fall, they are consumers of protein in the form of cankerworms, creepy crawlies, and insects on the fly. In the neighborhoods which I frequent, they go into full fly-catching mode, pursuing their prey on the wing.

Audubon acknowledges the fly-catching ability of Cedar Waxwings, but he qualifies that ability. Here is the full paragraph from his 1840 Birds of America:

“They are excellent fly-catchers, spending much of their time in the pursuit of winged insects. This is by way of dessert, and is not managed with the vivacity or suddenness of true Fly-catchers, but with a kind of listlessness. They start from the branches, and give chase to the insects, ascending after them for a few yards, or move horizontally toward them, perhaps rather farther than when ascending, and as soon as the prey is secured, return to the spot, where they continue watching with slow motions of the head. Towards, evening, this amusement is carried on for half an hour, or an hour at a time, and is continued longer at the approach of autumn, the berries then becoming scarcer.”

I watch the waxwings along the river behind my home. They move back and forth across the river, from tree branch to tree branch. They ascend and descend in pursuit of insects, tirelessly chasing their prey. I have watched them mid-morning, mid-day, mid-afternoon, and until the light begins to fade from the sky.

Contrary to Audubon’s description, listlessness does not apply to Cedar Waxwings when they fly-catch. They launch their aerial flight with suddenness and pursue with vivacity. They are not ordering an optional dessert after a culinary meal of berries. Insects are protein, and from mid summer to early fall, the waxwings need to gather huge quantities of protein for their young. Insects are the most efficient sources of protein available. They fly-catch with alacrity.

Cedar Waxwings nest late. They don’t get busy with the task until late June or early July, a time when many birds are fledging their young and bringing their breeding season to an end. In spite of the late start, if food supplies are adequate, they raise two broods.

Last weekend on Putney Mountain, I watched adult Cedar Waxwings make regular visits to a white pine. The would fly-catch for ten or fifteen minutes, and then disappear. Then they would return and repeat the fly-catching exercise. I think they were foraging for nestlings or fledglings.

Last year, during the second week in September, I watched fledgling Cedar Waxwings being fed. Every few minutes the parents returned from a foraging trip to feed the four young birds. They brought protein rich insects to the gaping mouths of the juveniles.

This was not dessert, and it was not done with the slightest degree of listlessness.

Last Saturday, I watched a Cedar Waxwing perch on the end of a pine branch. Insect hoards hovered within my binocular field of view. The waxwing followed the insects with slow motions of its head, just as Audubon described, then suddenly, it flew.

With patience, and a significant element of luck, I managed to get a few photographs of the waxwing as it did its flycatching. (I also got many photographs of an empty pine branch, blue sky, and blurred leaves.) The photographs froze moments that happen so fast the eye and mind cannot capture them - the sudden mid-air swerve with tail ruddered one way, head the other, wings another  - a flying insect as it is about to be captured in the open beak. Frozen visual moments demonstrating the matter-of-fact agility of a waxwing in flight, in particular, and of birds in general.

Cedar Waxwings belong to the Genus, Bombycilla, which is a made-up word that may mean “little mover,” or may not. There is also a Bohemian and a Japanese waxwing. The former is found in the coniferous boreal forests of Eurasia and North America; the latter is found in Japan. On the end of some secondary wing feathers of these birds, there is a bare shaft. The tips of these shafts are often red. When perching, with wings folded, this is the red patch that we may see on the waxwings. The color resembles that of the red wax which was commonly used (dare I say in olden times?) to seal letters and documents - hence the “wax” wing.

Cedar Waxwings are known for their prodigious consumption of fruit; they binge on berries. But, some taxonomists consider them to be closely related to, perhaps in the same family as, the silky-flycatchers, such as our southwestern Phainopepla, an accomplished flycatcher. As I watch the Cedar Waxwings at this time of the year, I certainly see a very accomplished flycatcher. There is not a kingbird, wood-pewee, or phoebe that I have seen who can do it any better.

What the Cedar Waxwing also is, is a poor excuse for a songbird. Cedar Waxwings simply repeat a series of high “scree” notes in an irregular way. They seem to do it whenever they are flying, or courting, or feeding, or whatever ... unless there is a predator nearby. Then they issue an alarm call, a piercing “seeew.” Here Audubon is right: “This note is feeble, and as it were lisping ...”

Finally ... the Cedar Waxwing is handsome. It has been described (in Bent’s Life History) “as the perfect gentleman of the bird world ... he is quiet and dignified in manner, sociable, never quarrelsome.” He, and she, is polite and unselfish. The “plumage is delicate in coloring - soft, quiet browns, grays, and pale yellow - set off, like a carnation in our buttonhole, by a touch of red on the wing.”

Good birding!

Addendum - I send my weekly column to the paper on Wednesday morning. In the interest of full disclosure, on Thursday morning I was on Putney Mountain, and photographed this juvenile Cedar Waxwing. Note that he is about to swallow a berry. The waxwings were not flycatching, but instead were binging on berries. The timing of their dietary switch could not have been worse, at least for the point I was trying to make, and perhaps my credibility. Alas!


Birding is Fun! said...

Great post! I too have seen Cedar Waxwings flycatching with the skills of the best of the flycatchers. Very often I see them flycatching over rivers. The berry binging is really going strong right now! It seems like the berries aren't soft or ripe enough until late summer.

Chad said...

Nice post. Cedar Waxwings will probably always be one of my favorite birds... they are often overlooked by some but I rate them pretty high on the cool bird list!


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