Nine-Minute Naturalist: Cedar Waxwing
Filed under: Nine-Minute Naturalist
by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator
I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!
The bleak winter landscape magnifies any burst of color, movement or noise. A cardinal flying overhead, the evergreen pine stand and the red fox scampering by are a few that make the Wintergreen winter landscape special. My favorite flash of color and movement comes from the onslaught of cedar waxwings descending on the rare plants still bearing fruit in the winter. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will delve into the world of my favorite bird, the cedar waxwing.
The cedar waxwing displays distinct plumage that makes identification easy for novice birders. This handsome bird has a black mask surrounding its eyes with a peachy brown head and chest, a yellow belly, and yellow-tipped tail feathers. They also have bright red tips on their secondary tail feathers. This unique and colorful plumage stands out greatly amongst a winter landscape. This bird is a gregarious creature especially in the migration period into the winter months. Winter flocks can range from hundreds to thousands and form nomadic groups in search of winter food sources. These enormous noisy flocks grow, shrink, divide, and rejoin in flight similar to starling movements.
The cedar waxwing derives its name from its love for a particular woody plant, the cedar or in our particular area the eastern red cedar. More specifically it is named for its love of the cedar berries that form a prominent part of its diet. The preferred food of cedar waxwings is berries of any sort. They descend in mass upon a fruit bearing tree or plant and stirp it bare and depart in search of their next food source. Their preferred fruits in our area are cedar, holly, serviceberry, choke cherry, mulberry, hawthorn and persimmon. They are also prolific spreaders of invasive species due to their feeding on autumn olive, oriental bittersweet, Chinese privet and Japanese honeysuckle fruit. They will also prey on insects, especially in summer. Their love for berries can cause a unique problem…drunk birds. Berries in late winter often undergo fermentation which causes problems to small creatures such as cedar waxwings and robins that gorge on overripe fruit. The resulting compromised behavior causes them to behave in a confused manner that results in them flying into cars and windows at a disturbing rate.
Cedar waxwings live in open wooded areas, along forest edges, open fields and are increasingly found in towns and cities. In winter, flocks are most commonly found in open woodlands, parks, gardens, and second growth forests in search of berries to meet their dietary needs. This is the time period they are easiest to find, as they stray from closed forest environments into our patchwork of developments seeking any offerings of fruit.
Their voice is also very distinctive and aids in the identification process. They have two common calls: a high-pitched zeeee and a longer, high pure seeee. Cedar waxwings call often, especially in flight. Unlike the roughly 5000 other songbird species, cedar waxwings have no song.
Of all the birds seen at Wintergreen in winter, none are a more welcome sight than a flock of cedar waxwings descending onto a fruit-laden tree like a persimmon. Their distinct plumage, sound and movement are a welcome break in the drab winter landscape. If you have plants or trees still holding onto fruit this winter, keep vigilant to catch a flock of gorgeous cedar waxwing feasting on your fruit offering.