Saturday, May 17, 2008

This Bird Creates Sensational Impressions

Waxwings! They do get your attention.

The cedar waxwing is claimed by many to be the best dressed bird in America. It is also claimed to be the best mannered in that you never see them squabbling with one another as other birds do. They are quiet birds. You never know they are around until you see them, regardless of the size of the flock.

The waxwing is larger than a sparrow and smaller than a robin. A small black mask stands out underneath a pointed soft brown crest. Soft, silky, pinkish wood-brown plumage covers his 7 - 8 inch back. His throat is a light brown, his chin black velvet. The belly is washed in the softest yellow. The slate tail has a narrow yellow band across the end and on the slate-gray wings are small red spots like sealing wax. Though considered migratory, the waxwing might better be called a vagabond . . . random wanderers, if you will. They have a tendency to drift southward in the fall and north in the spring. Late winter and early spring are the best times to see these hobos in the Central Savannah River Area. They are now roving about neighborhoods in scattered flocks, large and small.

Waxwings do create a sensational first impression. Carolyn Tyler of the Aiken Museum called March 26 to report a flock of some 50 - 100 of these gorgeous birds eating berries from the ancient trees on the museum grounds. She commented that they had been seeing birds fly past the windows all day and finally investigated. It is exciting to see a tree decorated with dozens and dozens of these handsome birds.

Waxwings are a sociable bunch and travel in huge flocks. They feed on berries of cedar and juniper, dogwood and woodbine berries, elder and haw and other small fruits. On March 28 they ravaged our big fatsia plant that stands beside the bird pool of all its plump white berries. For the first time I observed waxwings feeding chickadee-like, clinging up-side-down on a branch of the fatsia while they devoured the juicy berries hanging under a leaf.

Cedarbirds, as they are sometimes called, will sit for hours nearly motionless in a tree digesting a recent feast. One curious birder found that fruit given to young cedar waxwings passed through the digestive system in 16 minutes.

The waxwing calls into competition the goldfinch as to who is the latest nester. In late June, July and August these wanders give up the flocking habit, choose mates and begin nesting. The large nest is loosely constructed of grass, shreds of bark, twine, fine roots, catkins, moss or rags. Into this cozy nest the female lays 4 - 6 gray-blue eggs marked with blotches of black and brown. Because of late nestings, some young don't leave the nest until deep into September, just weeks before they begin their nomad travels.

These slim, sleek, beautiful birds will be around for a few weeks. Look for them.

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