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A Bird in Hand

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The Bohemian Waxwing Clare Biodiversity Group. Used with permission. The Bohemian Waxwing Clare Biodiversity Group. Used with permission.

We all know there are Cedars in the woods, but did you know there are Bohemians as well?

Waxwings – wandering frugivores with dapper duds

We are fortunate to have not one, but two, waxwings in our neck of the woods. The eponymous name refers to the unique, wax-like substance on the wing tips of these birds. It is as if God, with a creative gesture, carefully dipped the bird’s wings into pearlescent sealing wax. Ornithologists are unsure of the function of the this waxy material, but the bright red tips serve as a useful and distinctive field mark.

The two species you might chance upon are the Cedar Waxwing and the Bohemian Waxwing. The first we’ll consider is the Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum). This waxwing is a local resident, though it never seems to stay in one place for too long. These birds form small flocks that are ever on the prowl for almost any type of small fruit – juniper berries, crab apples, blue berries, service berries, etc. Hence their classification as frugivores, Latin for “fruit devourers.” A dry, frozen cherry is just fine for the Cedar Waxwing on a winter day. But as you can imagine, available supplies are quickly consumed and so the birds are continuously in the hunt. In the summer during breeding season they will also take insects in the air. Bird cannot live on fruit alone!

The Cedar Waxwing is a lovely thing, slightly smaller than a robin. It is clothed in a silky beige garb that transitions in front into a pale yellow belly and on the back into a gray that covers the wings and the tail. That blunt tail is also edged in bright yellow – another important field-mark. The bird sports a lazy crest that never seems to stand erect and a black bandit’s mask over its eyes. Appropriate wear for someone stealing your berries! Who is that masked bird?

Once you have learn to identify the Cedar Waxwing by sight, the next lesson is knowing it by sound. The Cedar Waxwing doesn’t have a song per say, but rather a distinctive trill that sounds almost like a large insect. The call will identify it before it comes into sight. I know that the waxwings are raiding my blue berries simply by hearing their wheezy buzzes from my window.

The other waxwing we might see in our area is the Bohemian Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) . Whereas the Cedar Waxwing is strictly a North American bird, the Bohemian is distributed throughout the northern hemisphere. Our area is just inside of the southerly reaches of its year-round range, this bird tending to favor more northerly latitudes than the Cedar. The Bohemian is also a bit larger than the Cedar, though the size difference might be difficult to judge in the field. Its coloration is similar to the Cedar’s, but it swaps the yellow belly for a gray one and the black chin patch is more prominent. Since I seem to always be looking up at the birds when I spot them, I look for the distinctive rusty-red coverts of the Bohemian to separate it from the Cedar, which has white coverts (coverts are the underside feathers of the tail). The Bohemian retains the bright gilded tail edge of its cousin.

Though the Bohemian is technically a year-round resident, our chances of seeing it in the winter might be better than any other time of the year. This is because the Bohemian is prone to population movements called irruptions. An irruption is when whole populations of birds will move away from traditional forage areas into other, less traditional ones, in response to scarcity of food supplies. Thus, a collapse of a regular berry supply in the winter will send the birds scurrying south, or east, or west. These movements are not necessarily predictable. There are few sights, or sounds, more wonderful than an entire flock of Bohemians descending to feed in a fruit tree. In fact, its specie name garrulus means “noisy.” Its buzz seems to be a little more coarse than the Cedar’s, but definitively waxwing.

Something else noteworthy of waxwings is the late date at which they begin nesting. This summer I saw a flock of Cedar’s stripping moss from some large Douglas Firs. It was already mid-July, a time when the hatchlings of most other birds species are already fledged. The purpose behind this late nesting date is to coordinate the birth of the chicks with the ripening of the summer fruit crops.

This fall, keep your eyes peeled for the waxwings, especially if you have a fruit tree, mountain ash, or some other enticing food source in your yard. Chances are you’ll get a visitor or two, plucking berries from the branches and swallowing them whole. But if you are really fortunate, you’ll get the whole gang of masked bandits at once. And once they’ve stripped the tree bear, they will be gone. Then you’ll know what all the “buzz” is about! Happy birding.

Photos: Cedar Waxwing © 2008 Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Used with permission. Bohemian Waxwing. © 2008 Clare Biodiversity Group. Used with permission.

 

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birds, outdoors, Bohemian Waxwing, waxwing, Cedar Waxwing

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