Published November 08, 2009, 12:00 AM

Always in Season: Waxwings appear to feast on cedar berries

Waxwings are totem birds for me. I identify strongly with them, for several reasons. One is that they love sweet fruit, and so do I. Another is that they appear to have little attention span, and neither do I.

By: Mike Jacobs, Grand Forks Herald

A little band of cedar waxwings, true to their name, settled into a cedar tree at my place west of Gilby, N.D., on Friday afternoon.

The birds gorged themselves on cedar berries.

They also prompted a choice for me. This week, I’ll be planting more cedar trees, the better to attract more cedar waxwings.

Waxwings are totem birds for me. I identify strongly with them, for several reasons. One is that they love sweet fruit, and so do I. Another is that they appear to have little attention span, and neither do I.

I also love the waxwings because they are social birds, often occurring in large flocks. They are vocal, producing a kind of liquid buzz that’s very appealing.

They are hardy, showing up in summer heat and cold winter days.

What’s more, the waxwings demand attention, because two species occur here, and telling them apart requires a close look.

The fact that the birds that visited last week were in a cedar tree did not clinch their identification.

Bohemian waxwings are happy to find fruit-laden cedar trees, as well.

Cedar waxwings are browner, and perhaps a trifle leaner looking, than Bohemian waxwings. This reflects their slightly smaller size and their relatively longer tails.

Bohemian waxwings seem to be a bit more plump; again, perhaps, because their tails are shorter, and they appear grayer overall.

Yet Bohemian waxwings are more colorful. They display white, red and yellow in their wings.

The wings of cedar waxwings have only a spot of red.

This is what provides the second part of the name. The people who named the birds imagined that these spots resembled wax.

The Germans have a different idea. Their name for waxwings translates, loosely, as “silky tails.” This refers to the yellow at the end of the tail. Both species have this.

As far as identification goes, the underside of the tail is more important. In cedar waxwings, it is white; in Bohemian waxwings, it is chestnut. This is obvious from below, of course, but it also shows up in flight, and it contributes to the overall darker look of Bohemian waxwings.

The waxwings belong to one of the bird world’s smallest families, with only three species.

The cedar waxwing is a North American species, occurring pretty much across the continent.

The Bohemian waxwing is a northern species present in both North America and Eurasia. It’s a familiar bird in Scandinavia and would have been familiar to the European immigrants.

The third species occurs only in Japan.

All waxwing species are “irruptive,” which means that they occur in good numbers some years and hardly at all in others.

The reason is simple enough. Waxwings roam about seeking sweet fruit. This can be abundant some years and nearly absent the next.

This food preference means that waxwings have become more abundant in the last 30 years. More fruit trees have been planted as suburbs have expanded. In our area, waxwings have benefitted from shelterbelt planting, which often includes cedar or juniper trees, both good sources of food for waxwings.

Waxwings also like buffalo berry, and this, too, is widely planted in farm shelterbelts. Quite likely, buffalo berry and juniper sustained waxwings on the Northern Plains before European settlement.

Neither is native to the Red River Valley, however, so it’s possible that waxwings are relatively new to our area, as well.

But waxwings are not dependent on fruit. Cedar waxwings, especially, take lots of insects. They pursue them from open perches, much as flycatchers do, darting out to snatch prey from the air.

It’s inappropriate, I know, to ascribe human attributes to wild species, but this is why waxwings seem to have such short attention spans.

Cedar waxwings are now a widespread and fairly common nesting species, and they must have occurred in suitable areas before immigration changed the landscape so drastically.

Bohemian waxwings are strictly winter visitors here, sustained by the fruits of plants we humans have planted — not for them, specifically, but for our own pleasure.

For me, the presence of waxwings adds to that immeasurably.

Jacobs is publisher and editor of the Herald.

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