Among the most elegant birds to visit Oakmont is the Cedar Waxwing. If you have trees or shrubs with berries or small fruit in your yard – such as pyracantha (firethorn), hawthorn, Chinese pistache, mulberry, or privet – you almost certainly will receive a visit from them between the fall and spring. And you will have no trouble recognizing them, because they are like nothing else we have here.
Cedar Waxwings look like well-dressed gentlemen on the way to a masked ball. A bit smaller than a robin, they have a smooth, silky appearance. They are a soft brown color, shading to gray on the wings and tail, with a pale yellow wash on their abdomens. On their heads they sport a crest like a feathery hat, which can be raised and lowered, and a jaunty black mask, lightly outlined in white. Their tails are edged in bright yellow. And as a final fashion statement, some individuals have ruby-red tips on the ends of their secondary wing feathers, as though dipped in sealing wax – hence the name “Waxwing.”
Waxwings are unusual in being true fructivores; they are among the few birds that can sustain themselves on fruit for months at a time. In the summer, when berries are scarcer, they supplement with protein from insects, larvae, and the like. You will not see them at a feeder.
Berries and other small fruit are central to just about everything these birds do. Waxwings tend to travel in flocks, a behavior that may have developed to increase their chances of finding fruiting plants. They typically fly in loose groups, where individuals seem to bounce around within the flock perimeter. Often they swoop into the tops of taller trees to survey the landscape. Once a food source is spotted, the flock quickly descends for the feast and can strip an entire tree or bush of berries before moving on. If the fruit is old and fermenting, they can become intoxicated and loll about until the alcohol wears off. Berries are used in mating behavior: in the spring, when pairs are forming up, two birds will carefully pass a berry back and forth many times in a bonding ritual. Nestlings are fed berries by their parents when they are just a couple of days old.
Keep an eye on anything in your yard or neighborhood with berries during the next few months, and enjoy the sudden invasion of these handsome birds.
Like birds and bird watching? Join the Oakmont Birders mailing list by contacting email@example.com. Share what you’re seeing. Hear about occasional bird walks. Questions about birds? Want a “Birds Seen in Oakmont” checklist? Send an e-mail.
(Photos courtesy of Tom Grey)