Cedar waxwings are special birds for several reasons. They are beautiful. They are gregarious within their flocks and talk nonstop. Their conversations are more like whispering instead of the usual chirping or twittering expected from birds. This whispering adds to the mystery surrounding them.
Also, what could be more mysterious than their attire? They wear black masks resembling the one worn by the Lone Ranger — or was it Zorro?
Put all of these characteristics together and it isn’t difficult to see why cedar waxwings are sometimes referred to as, “birds of mystery.” Even their comings and goings are challenging to predict.
Waxwings are resident birds and found throughout Washington all year. Where you might see them and when is the challenge.
That being said, they are usually seen in a variety of places at this time of the year. Throughout spring and summer their diet consists mostly of insects, some of which they catch in mid-air like flycatchers. During late summer and fall, they are great fruit eaters and instinctively know where to go to find the abundant and ripe berries and other fruits. Dogwood buttons come to mind first as they are so red and ripe right now. When a flock lands in a stand of our native dogwoods, it can sound like rain as many of the plucked seeds scatter on the ground. Families call to one another constantly. It’s as if everyone is checking on everyone else every other minute. The excited young fly in every direction. When an entire flock suddenly “flushes,” it’s always amazing they don’t hit one of the windows.
It isn’t unusual to find both waxwings and robins feeding in the same area. They are both fond of ripening berries — even over-ripe fruit. This side of them doesn’t fit in with their air of mystery. It’s not very romantic or mysterious when an individual is falling-down drunk. Waxwings and robins have both been observed in a state of inebriation that prevents them from taking to the air. A bird that can’t launch itself into flight has a problem. The sight of dozens of such individuals teetering across the grass is interesting to contemplate. I know that robins get cantankerous when they have over-imbibed but certainly wouldn’t expect the elegant waxwings to behave in a similar way.
Some flocks can become quite large with record numbers showing more than 100 individuals. This occurs as the family groups flock together to search out the natural food supply. The adults know where the best eating is, and the young follow them to share in the bounty. These youngsters are easy to identify. They look very different from the adults. Male and female waxwings look alike, but the young birds’ masks aren’t as intense, and they lack the distinguishing red wingtips, yellow breast and overall reddish-brown color. They do have the beginning of the adult’s crest, but their plumage is a blue-gray smoky color.
Waxwings belong to the family Bombycillidae. There are two species seen in North America. The cedar waxwing is the more common. The Bohemian waxwing, in Washington, is mostly seen in the northeastern part of the state. Blackberries, elderberries and huckleberries along with the berries on the wild hawthorn and mountain ash trees attract waxwing flocks, and this is something to keep in mind when adding bird-attracting plants to the landscape. Fall is the best time to plant these trees and bushes. That provides a great excuse to continue haunting your favorite nurseries.
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