Waxwing weird and wonderful

 David Hawke

Cedar waxwings nest late in the season so their young can be fed ripe berries. Look for these quiet birds around stands of mature cedar trees, as they like to eat the tender, new cones. (DAVID HAWKE/SPECIAL TO THE PACKET & TIMES)

Cedar waxwings nest late in the season so their young can be fed ripe berries. Look for these quiet birds around stands of mature cedar trees, as they like to eat the tender, new cones. (DAVID HAWKE/SPECIAL TO THE PACKET & TIMES)

Ontario has rare birds, common birds, breeding birds, migratory birds and iconic birds. When I look back at the list of those first species that make up my personal legacy of birdwatching, a wide variety comes to mind: blue jay, robin, chickadee, great blue heron, loon, downy woodpecker, red-tailed hawk and evening grosbeak. Oh, and bluebird, oriole, killdeer, mallard duck and, of course, Canada goose. But cedar waxwing does not readily come to mind, although it should.

Waxwings are one of the most common bird species in Ontario, found everywhere except the farthest northern reaches. Yet seeing one still brings an excitement as if it were found for the first time, again. Kind of weird, I know, but they are such shy and quiet creatures, a memory of them slips by without notice.

They certainly are not drab, as their silky, soft pastel blends of brown, grey and yellow make them a classy-looking bird, especially with that beguiling black mask and pompadour of crested feathers. They may look like they are going to a costume ball, but it would be a very high-end one, judging by their makeup.

The song of a waxwing can barely be described as song, the thin, wispy “seeeet-seeeet-seeeet” audible only at close range (or maybe it’s just me who needs to be at close range — dang that bit of hearing loss). When it is heard, there’s a guarantee the listening birdwatchers will be stopped in their tracks while finding the source.

Among the great mysteries of nature that remain unclear to us humans are the waxy red tips of their secondary feathers. The primary feathers are a beautiful slate grey, and the tertiary feathers next to the body are a light cream colour, but the tip of each of those middle feathers is capped with a brilliant scarlet drip of wax. And nobody knows why. This adds to the allure of waxwings, at least in my books.

Another feather-related factoid about cedar waxwings: They are changing the colour of their tails. Well, not all the tail, but the tips at least. The tails are supposed to be bright yellow — check your field guide and you will see that’s correct. But, since the early 1960s, many cedar waxwings in our region of North America have been sporting orange-tipped tails. What’s up with that?

Apparently, that mystery has been solved. As new varieties of honeysuckle shrubs were introduced by landscapers to the ever-more-common subdivisions of land, cedar waxwings that eat these berries tend to grow up with orange tail tips. Who knew? So, as society became affluent and suburbs became the tony place to live, and everybody had to have the “perfect” yard with green grass and flowering shrubs, we inadvertently changed the colour a waxwing’s tail. However, they seem to have accepted this difference between them.

Waxwings seem to be affected by this diet of coloured berries because 98% of a waxwing’s diet is indeed berries. While it will catch insects on the fly (and do some amazing aerial twists and turns to do so), it is berries, berries, berries these birds crave. Even its name, “cedar,” comes from its behaviour of eating juniper and cedar cones — something no other bird cares to consume.

Most of the other berry-eating birds separate the seed from the pulp and regurgitate the seed. Not cedar waxwings. The whole shebang gets processed right through and the seeds get pooped out the other end. Biologists who have studied cedar waxwings recorded the time it took from berry-in to seed-out, and waxwings are quite the record holder for this, ah, specialized function.

Here’s an ironic twist to the life of the parasitic brown-headed cowbird: The cowbird lays her eggs in other birds’ nests, leaving her offspring to be raised by these unwitting foster parents. If a cowbird egg gets deposited in a waxwing nest, the young cowbird is doomed to die as it cannot survive on such a restricted diet as berries, berries and more berries.

The nest itself is home to a well-regulated schedule of brooding parents: Dad has the day shift and Mom has the night shift. However, nest site selection and construction was all Mom’s idea; daddy waxwing just quietly complies. They are so sophisticated!

Even when they are romancing each other, there is serious protocol to be observed. The male advances with gift, such as a flower petal, in mouth and stops. Female advances and stops. Male advances and stops. Female advances and stops. Male advances and places gift in female’s beak. Female retreats, then advances and returns gift. This is repeated until the female eats the gift. Exasperated male is delighted this phase of courtship is over.

As cedar waxwings nest and lay eggs later in the season than most bird species (so berries are ripe to feed the new young’uns), look for them in small flocks around cedar hedges — and listen carefully for that reedy “seeeet-seeeet-seeeet.”

David Hawke is a columnist for the Packet & Times. He can be contacted at

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