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I was in first grade when American goldfinches got me excited about birds. They were so yellow. Nothing in my crayon box could match their brilliance. I had to stand on my tiptoes to peer out the window to see them.
But if goldfinches were the bait, it was cedar waxwings that set the hook. There were mountain ash trees outside the children’s library that I frequented in grammar school. The waxwings returned every winter to pluck the orange berries outside the window. They were splendid birds, adorned with a crest. They were a creamy gray color, but with a peach complexion around the head, a black mask and a yellowish belly. They had red tips along the wing feathers and yellow tips on the tail feathers that made them appear as if they had been delicately dipped in sealing wax. I was smitten.
I still am. Even their social habits are intriguing. Cedar waxwings are highly gregarious. They do not defend territories while breeding. They’ve been known to groom each other and to sit on a berry branch and pass food down the line to hungry compatriots. Over much of the year, they wander in large flocks, settling down wherever food is plentiful. They leave the flock only long enough to nest, raising two broods per year. Once the young have fledged, the whole family rejoins the flock. You can identify the youngsters in the crowd because they are streaky along the breast, a remnant of the camouflage that kept them inconspicuous on the nest.
Cedar waxwings whistle. It’s a high, reedy sound that they frequently make while flying, but they’ll also whistle while just sitting in the tree, nibbling fruit. I usually hear them before I see them. It’s typical for social birds to make a lot of noise while flying. It keeps the group together. Finches also vocalize on the wing.
Cedar waxwings are romantic. Their courtship displays are tender, as they hop toward each other on a branch, alternately bending and bowing to one another. Often they exchange gifts, such as a berry or flower petal. The male will initiate the exchange, bringing the token to the female. She may hop away with it, then return and pass the gift back. This can happen several times before she ultimately eats it. Both mates explore nesting sites together, but she makes the final decision.
Cedar waxwings are opportunistic. They feed mostly on fruit, but are quick to dine on flying insects whenever a major hatch fills the air. Although they are not as nimble as swallows, they can still climb, hover and swoop swallow-like, snatching bugs from the air. It’s common to see them feasting above a Maine river in summer. They also glean insects from vegetation, including spruce budworms.
Cedar waxwings even eat fruit before it’s fruit. They devour the petals of blossoming trees this time of year. It’s not an unusual behavior, as cardinals, finches, mockingbirds, blue jays and grouse do it, too. Cardinals, in particular, relish forsythia flowers. The petals provide enough nutrition until the actual berries emerge. In another couple of weeks, I expect to see waxwings foraging on the ground, gobbling all the wild strawberries they can find.
Cedar waxwings are among the latest species to nest. While most songbirds time their baby-making to coincide with spring’s insect boom, waxwings wait until the trees have filled with fruit. They begin feeding their hatchlings insects, which provides the protein chicks need to grow quickly. Then they switch to berries, giving the kids the energy they need to keep up. Only a few seed-eaters nest later than waxwings.
Cedar waxwings roam the continent. In summer, they breed throughout the northern United States and southern Canada. After that, they may go anywhere, ranging as far south as Costa Rica. Wherever fruit has ripened, they may pop up. Their name stems from a fondness for cedar berries where they were first identified.
Some Maine fruit is too hard, even when fully mature. The freeze-thaw of winter ultimately turns such berries to edible mush. One moment, waxwings may be completely absent from the state. The next, hundreds can arrive just as the crabapples have softened sufficiently. America’s fondness for planting ornamental trees has benefited fruit-eating birds, and the population of cedar waxwings has remained steady or increased.
So there you have it: a beautiful bird, a social nomad, a controller of pests and disperser of seeds and a hopeless romantic. That makes an impression on a fourth-grader.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.