ATHENS, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – Most people like to associate certain birds with certain seasons, for instance, bluebirds with spring, goldfinch with winter, or bats with Halloween. (I know! – Don’t write me! – Just seeing if you’re paying attention.)
Anyhoo, we get one species in winter that regularly becomes more observable in March as it gorges itself on the remaining crops of holly berries or other native goodies to put on extra fat to convert for energy in its upcoming migration, and that species is Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum).
Cedar Waxwings are among the most beautiful of birds. I always say they look airbrushed.
They’re the size of bluebirds and are mostly a smooth, light pinkish brown. The light brown
fades into yellow toward the belly, but it transitions into gray along the lower back and rump. They have a black “bandit” mask across their eyes, bordered in white, that’s handsomely garnished with a crest. The tips of their tails are bright yellow, and they have small, bright red, waxy protuberances along the tips of some of their wing feathers, which is how they got their name. (Although I admit shiny blades of Adamantium would be cooler.)
Their typical vocalization, which they give often at all times of the year, is a weak, high-pitched, asthmatic whine. This is why Cedar Waxwings sometimes carry a tiny Albuterol inhaler.
So, as the images illustrate wonderfully, Cedar Waxwings are astonishingly beautiful birds, it’s just that they happen to sound like the brakes on an old, rusted Buick.
Cedar Waxwings are nomadic, roaming in flocks as they search for berries, fruits, and drupe.
Louisiana birder and biologist Bill Fontenot keeps a record of Louisiana observations of which
birds eat which fruit.
Cedar Waxwings have been observed eating nearly 30 native plant species. one of which, as the bird’s name suggests, is the Eastern Red Cedar, which, despite its beautiful blue berries, is browsed only by a handful of bird species.
But Cedar Waxwings don’t discriminate.
I myself am a man endowed with a respectable ability to consume culinary delights in great abundance. But the Cedar Waxwing’s gluttony is something to be admired beyond comparison. John James Audubon, who called them “Cedar-birds” when he wrote in his journals in the early 1800s, said of them, “The appetite of the Cedar-bird is of so extraordinary a nature as to prompt it to devour every fruit or berry that comes in its way. In this manner, they gorge themselves to such excess as sometimes to be unable to fly, and suffer themselves to be taken by the hand.”
Waxwings give literal meaning to the phrase, “I’m so full I can’t move.”
Last month I had the good fortune to see the Cedar Waxwing’s only other member of the
Bombycilla genus, the Bohemian Waxwing. But I had to drive to Northern Minnesota to see
them, and I only mention them because their girth so outweighs that of our Cedar Waxwings
that their silhouette resembles an ankle sock stuffed with a grapefruit about halfway down.
Bohemian waxwings are super tough and nest pretty much within the Arctic Circle.
Cedar Waxwings nest from below the Arctic Circle down to about the middle of the lower 48. Their winter range covers almost all of the lower 48 and down into Mexico, so that over a given year, nearly all of North America can witness these beautiful gluttons. Because they rely so heavily on fruits and berries, you might assume that numbers of Cedar Waxwings vary in an area depending on the food there.
And you’d be correct.
March is when they begin to leave their wintering grounds to head back to the northern half of the continent, and they need lots of calories for fuel. So, this is often the best time to see flocks of them attacking hollies or other trees still laden with fruit. The highest number I’ve ever recorded myself in a single flock was 1,027 (counted from photos) in mid-March of 2016 when they caused the mockingbirds in my yard endless grief by greedily consuming every holly berry the mockers had guarded with vigilance all winter. Some waxwings will even remain until early
May and won’t leave until they’ve eaten every wild Black Cherry they can find. And they have
the added benefit of all the Mulberries in April, too.
So, if you have any trees with berries still on them, look for a frenzied flock of Cedar Waxwings to come by and strip them in a matter of minutes later this month.
And don’t feel so bad about it next time you shame yourself with that bag of Oreos.
Dillon is the former President of the Louisiana Ornithological Society, a regional reviewer for Cornell University’s www.ebird.org, a member of the Louisiana Bird Records Committee, on the Board of Directors of the Briarwood Caroline Dormon Nature Preserve, he’s an English Literature teacher at Minden High School, and he’s and the founder of the Minden High School Nature Club.