Monday, November 17, 2008

The Birds Bolt Before Bad Weather

Cedar Waxwing, Bombycilla cedrorum

The nearest airport is about an hour to the north. Taking my daughter to her plane this morning, I saw literally dozens of flocks of geese hot winging it south. There was a sudden burst of snow, the radio spouts the weather forecast. More snow in the next 24 hours and a precipitous drop in temperature tonight down to 18 degrees F. Numerous planes are cancelled but birds of many species fling themselves before the wind and fly with all their strength--further.

I'd been wondering if and when the fruit of the Mountain Ash in the front yard would become a magnet for birds. When I turn the car into the driveway, there are birds in the tree laden with the red berries.

There are four or five Robins. Their familiar shape is easy to identify. And this Robin is just another of the many birds intent on peering at me between twigs in the last few days. Eyes, eyes, eye contact, or lack there of being so incredibly important to what a bird will do next.

But the bulk of the berry eating birds are Cedar Waxwings. Did you ever notice that unlike most species that Cedar Waxwings seem to exist in flocks most of the year? The suspicion is that since they are fruit eaters and nice sugary ripe fruit tends not to be just everywhere, and being they don't can food or have refrigerators, group eating makes good sense for the species.

They also flock to infestations of insects particularly during breeding season

Suddenly all the Waxwings flush to the top of the backyard maples. Speaking of the breeding season, Waxwings have the latest breeding season of all the passerines in North America. One would imagine the reason would be the time when fruits ripen. Therefore some pairs don't lay eggs until August.

DNA suggests that members of the family Bombycillidae are likely close relatives to the dippers, thrushes, and starlings.

Why are they Cedar Waxwings anyway? Remember the little green Juniper fruits that are used to make gin? Well, one of the Waxwings favorite and the most common juniper in North America is the Red Cedar, hence Cedar Waxwings.

Whatever flushed them still seems to be keeping them in the maples. Preening passes the time.

A little stretching works.

Waxwings make a cup nest of grasses and twigs. They've been known to recycle materials from other nests and to refurbish, previously used nests. The male and the female collect materials but it's the female who often exclusively builds the nest from the jointly collected materials.

I don't know about you but I've always wondered just why they were called "waxwings". I'm told the answer is those little colorful blobs that oddly end their secondary feathers. The vanes of the feathers are specially modified at the end to hold a dense concentrated red pigment which is gotten from the fruit they eat. A little like the pink of flamingos which is linked to their traditional diet.

Personally I think the feather blobs feel more like plastic than wax but when they were named I suppose they didn't have plastic yet. Besides Cedar Plasticwings sounds pretty weird.

These Waxwings all have the traditional yellow tail tip. These days that isn't always the case. About 50 years ago when the exotic (invasive) Asian Honeysuckles became very popular, some Waxwings started showing up with orange tail tips. For whatever reason the red carotenoid from the non-native honeysuckle was collecting in the tail along with the usual yellow pigment causing an orange tail tip.

Suddenly the sun bursts through the clouds, and the birds and the berries light up. And the birds head for the Mountain Ash.

While keeping an eye on me of course.

Then the clouds move in again.

The wind picks up and it begins to snow heavily. The Waxwings fly off as do the Robins.

The flocks of birds are still passing over one after another.

The snow is sticking and so are the Juncos. Their flock has increased exponentially since yesterday. But then again, some people call them Snowbirds. Guess that's a hint.

Donegal Browne


Karen Anne said...

Ah, red like those blobs of wax people used to seal letters with. I never thought of that.

I wonder why I've never seen any cedar waxwings in my giant red cedar, here in RI, which seems to be in their range. I didn't realize anybody actually ate red cedar "berries."

Donegal Browne said...

Great thought, I'm betting you're right and that sealing wax is visual they had in mind.

How dense is your Red Cedar? Could the Cedar Waxwings be in there a few times a year without you noticing them?

Karen Anne said...

The red cedar is a big, dense tree, so yes, some could be in there occasionally.

I was thinking of how they used to swarm pyracantha bushes in my yard in California, that would be hard to miss.