Cedar waxwings bring bright red color to dreary afternoon

Posted June 18, 2010, at 9:13 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:27 p.m.

          I went out to do a bit of birding one afternoon earlier in the week. As always, the cloud cover, temperature, and wind conditions contributed to the overall “mood” of the day. I never fail to take this in and it makes each day unique—even when birding the same spot over and over again.

  This particular afternoon was overcast and somber; heavy clouds promised rain any time, and a fitful onshore breeze made the seaside trees and shrubs whisper and rustle. The mood this created was one of suspenseful mystery; I felt anything could happen at any minute.

  As I happened to be gazing at a small maple tree ahead, a medium-sized songbird suddenly swooped out from the cover of the branches, executed a shallow “J” loop in the air, and swiftly returned to the tree, as if drawn by a magnet. Training the binoculars on the spot, I was delighted to see a little face with a black mask peering at me in seeming bemusement. This is utter anthropomorphism, but it’s hard to ignore the comic appearance of a cedar waxwing.

  As I watched the bird I became aware of another of its kind perched at the end of a thin branch. The bird had been so still I had originally missed it. Although the pale yellow-and-buff-colored plumage would usually have stood out in bright contrast to the dark green of the leaves, the grayness of the day and the angle of the muted light—the bird would have been mostly in silhouette had the sun been out—seemed to turn distant objects into uniform hues.

  The two waxwings suddenly flew into the heart of another small maple right above my head. Disturbed by their appearance, a song sparrow popped out onto the outer branches of the tree, perching in full view. Although song sparrows are a dime a dozen around here, I enjoyed the close-up view of its simple, but elegant appearance.

  I was also able to get good views of the waxwing’s plumage, with its trademark wax-like tips on the ends of the secondary flight feathers, as well as the bright yellow-tipped tail. Sometimes, the end of the tail feathers will instead be a brilliant orange, a result of the bird having consumed exotic honeysuckle fruits while in the process of molting, according to “The Birds of North America,” species account.

  The red wax-like tips on their wings are associated with the age — immature birds will have no red tips, older birds may have nine or more. These older birds may be more successful as breeders; researchers have found they tend to nest earlier and raise more young. Thus, this plumage characteristic “is an important signal in mate choice and social organization,” according to the BNA.

  Interestingly, the texture of the red tips more closely resembles plastic, rather than wax. The tips aren’t extra appendages, either; rather, they are flattened extensions of the feather shafts. Their color is the result of the carotenoid pigments in the fruits these birds eat. The bird cannot directly synthesize the pigments, so the body deposits them in the feather extensions.

  The waxwings’ diet of fruit influences many aspects of its behavior as well as its physiology. Although in summer it adds insects to its diet, its mainstay is the fruit of strawberry, blueberry, cherry, and blackberry, to name just a few. It breeds late in the season, coinciding with the ripening of fruit crops. It is less territorial even during the breeding season, gathering in flocks to forage on fruiting trees and shrubs. In winter, it is highly nomadic as its diet switches almost entirely to fruit; flocks travel widely to take advantage of superabundant winter fruit crops.

  Cedar waxwings were among the first birds I had become acquainted with when I moved here to Maine. I will always associate them with the height of summer; hearing their high, thin lispy whistles calls to mind warm days heavy with the scent of pine.

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