Late every summer and into the fall, when I’m ambling down a country road in northern Wisconsin, watching raptors at Duluth’s Hawk Ridge, birding along Lake Superior, or sitting in my backyard, I’m drawn to Cedar Waxwings.
Many sit on bare branches rising above leafy trees. Now and then, one flutters out to snatch a flying insect but, even then, takes its time about it. Waxwing flight looks unhurried, and the sibilant calls (“like tiny mice snoring,” explained an ornithology professor) contribute to the Zen-like peacefulness that washes over me whenever they’re near.
Even migrating flocks appear not to rush. Birds continually change position, so the flock seems to swirl gently as it moseys along. As you and I start the school year, Cedar Waxwings remain in the lazy, hazy mode of summer vacation.
Except when individuals dart out and back after an insect, they mostly sit still, as if conserving energy is their highest priority. Waxwings are easy to recognize by their crested head, erect posture, and soft demeanor.
Berry bushes and fruit trees also harbor waxwings. We can often approach close to a flock in fruit-eating mode. The young of the year still have streaked breasts and bellies, and their secondary feathers lack the red waxy tips that give the species its name. Developing them doesn’t seem all that urgent; each bird grows them at its own pace.
Few people leave snags and dead branches alone in their backyards, and even when we do, we can’t guarantee that waxwings will show up. Planting fruiting trees and shrubs may draw the birds to our yards. Birdbaths, especially models that look like natural water features, can also work.
Unfortunately, what goes in also comes out. Waxwing droppings frequently contain the seeds of exotic invasive plants. As fast as land stewards can remove buckthorn, for example, Cedar Waxwings replant it, with help from robins and other fruit-eaters. Too bad we can’t explain to them that the shrub crowds out native plants that are more nutritious and provide food over a wider part of the annual cycle.
The other problem associated with fruit-eating birds begins when sugars in the fruit ferment. Waxwings can become intoxicated. They do have a sense of smell and may detect the odors of fermented berries. Unfortunately, during freezing conditions, fermented berries don’t exude many smells; that’s when waxwings start having difficulties. While intoxicated, they grow disoriented and lose muscular coordination. Since they often collide with windows and cars, it’s best to plant fruiting plants away from windows and roads.
It’s the least we can do, it seems to me, considering the contentment and peacefulness that these quietly convivial, lackadaisical birds inspire.
This article from Laura Erickson’s column “Attracting Birds” appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of BirdWatching magazine. Subscribe.
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