Handsome Holiday Birds

December 19, 2009

Like holiday magic, flocks of handsome cedar waxwings magically appear in December to consume remaining crabapple fruit before departing in search of holiday fruitcake elsewhere.

Waxwings are handsome. They sport sleek buff-brown necks, gray backs and pale yellow breasts. Their most striking field marks are the jaunty crest, black face mask underlined with white and unmistakable yellow tail tips and red tips on the secondary wing feathers. The red, waxy-looking wing feather tips provide the second half of their common name.

Waxwings are social. They practice mutual preening with birds in a flock grooming one another. They occasionally perch in a line along a branch and pass honeysuckle berries or crabapples down the line like hors d’oeuvres. When autumn temperatures are warm, fruits can ferment and waxwings may imbibe too many and become drunk. In rare cases, waxwings have died from over-indulgence in fermented fruit. In northern forests, berries of northern white cedar are an important part of cedar waxwings’ diets providing the first part of their common name. Berries of the closely-related juniper are fermented to produce “gin.” These birds know how to party!

The popularity of flowering crabapples as ornamental landscaping has benefitted all the “frugivorous” (fruit-eating) birds including blue jays, robins and waxwings whose autumn and winter diet is comprised of fruit. Persistent fruit that remains on bare branches of flowering shrubs and trees now attracts flocks of waxwings to suburban backyards, college campuses, shopping plazas, supermarkets, fast food restaurants and banks.

Waxwings are highly-specialized fruit-eaters. Their digestive tracts are adapted to passing seeds in fruit rather than regurgitating them. Waxwings are important seed vectors for plants which advertise nutritious fruit with bright red and purple pigments to attract birds and mammals which distribute the seed.

In the past decade, birders report seeing more waxwings sporting salmon orange tail feather tips, often mixed with the normal yellow tips. Ornithologists speculate that fruits of non-native ornamental honeysuckles including Morrow’s Honeysuckle contain purple-reddish “rhodoxanthan” pigments which combine with yellow “carotene” pigments found in native fruit to produce orange colors seen in the tail feather tips of nestling waxwings fed berries of imported honeysuckles. Orange tail tips are limited to first-year fledglings because imported honeysuckle fruit is only available in summer months when developing nestlings are growing first feathers while being fed by attentive adults. Once fledglings produce their adult tail feathers during the following year’s autumn molt, they exhibit the yellow tips derived from yellow pigments in native honeysuckle fruits.

After spending summers isolated as breeding pairs typically raising three to four nestlings, these gregarious birds form large wandering flocks of forty to one-hundred or more birds in autumn and early winter. Waxwings are considered “facultative migrants.” The flocks wander erratically in search of food. Their sometimes rowdy, drunken antics at the ornamental landscape plantings on college campuses provide a striking contrast to the more serious conduct of the resident scholars.

Winter waxwings wander from northern states south to Mexico and as far as Panama. Waxwings magically appear in areas with ample fruit and berries for short periods. Once they’ve eaten all fruits, they move on and don’t return until possibly the next year. By March, waxwings join other refugees from the frozen college campuses of the north when Spring Break revelers gather at resort destinations along the Gulf Coast. Waxwings stay until the fruit is gone. Then, like the college kids say: “Outta beer? Outta here!

In their interesting mating rituals - waxwings, not students, - males court potential mates with a hopping dance while offering fruit. If a female is receptive, she too will join the hopping dance and pass fruit back to the male. After repeated hopping dances and fruit-passing, females select a nest site.

I found an elegant cedar waxwing nest last winter perched three feet high in the crotch of a speckled alder shrub at the edge of a maple swamp. The robin-size large nest was made of birch bark, coarse twigs, rootlets and moss and lined with pine needles and grasses. The outside of the nest was festooned with neon-green reindeer moss lichens. The cedar waxwing breeding range stretches from southern Canada across the northern U.S. They may be present in N.H. year-round and ornamental landscaping is increasing the odds you will see them.

I think a New England college could adopt the cedar waxwing as the school mascot. They look sharp! They like to party! It would look just as cool any cardinal head on a football helmet. Go Waxwings!

Naturalist Dave Anderson is director of education for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. His column appears every other week in the New Hampshire Sunday News. He may be reached at danderson@forestsociety.org or through the Forest Society's Web site: forestsociety.org.