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“A Cape Cod Destination Icon For 40 Years”

Cedar Waxwings

Dear Bird Folks,

I was out walking this morning when I noticed a tree filled with Cedar Waxwings. I counted twenty of them. Why such a big flock? Isn’t it mating season? Shouldn’t they be paired off by now?

– Noah, Eastham, MA


There’s always one, Noah,

Don’t you hate it when you tell your friend some great news and instead of being happy for you, he (she) will try to top you? If you win $5.00 in the lottery, he’ll say that he just won $10.00. If your car gets 40 MPG, he claims his gets 45. If you have four wisdom teeth removed, he just had five pulled. With that in mind, I’m glad you saw a tree filled with twenty waxwings, but two days ago I saw a tree with 24 of them in it. Sorry. Actually, I’m not bragging, like the guy with five wisdom teeth; I’m only mentioning it because big flocks are just how waxwings roll. Very few birds like each other as much as waxwings do. Oh, sure, lots of birds travel in flocks, but within the flock there’s always a bit of squabbling. (Ever see finches on a feeder?) Not so with waxwings. Even during the breeding season they are best buds. A flock of waxwings is like a utopian commune from back in the ‘60s…only the waxwings smell better.

A few years ago I wrote a column about the best-looking bird on Cape Cod, proclaiming it was the Blue Jay. I chose the jay because of its good looks, but also because I knew it would annoy a few folks. And while I did generate a bit of controversy, there wasn’t the rioting in the streets that I half expected. Runner-up on my best-looking bird list was the Cedar Waxwing. There was no controversy with this choice. Waxwings should be in contention for the best-looking bird notof only Cape Cod, but all of North America and perhaps the world.

Waxwings aren’t flashy like parrots, or have over-the-top colors like Wood Ducks or peacocks. In fact, waxwings aren’t colorful at all. They are simply handsome. Each bird is covered in a soft blend of muted gray, yellow and brown, and every feather fits them perfectly, as if they’re wearing suits commissioned by Giorgio Armani. In addition, waxwings are augmented with a distinctive crest, a yellow tail-band and a Zorro-style black facemask. Then there is the feature that gives this bird its name: the bright red waxy tips on the wings. Like a lot of odd things in nature, the purpose of the waxy tips is unknown, with most researchers leaning towards mate selection. Okay, that could be true, but have the experts ever considered that the red tips are there just to make the birds look cool? That would be my vote.

One of the most common questions (and complaints) we get this time of year has to do with birds attacking windows. I’m not talking about those sad accidental collisions, but about birds that repeatedly flying into a window…on purpose. Some people think the bird wants to get into their house or that it’s the reincarnation of a long departed relative. Of course, it’s none of those things; it’s simply an overly aggressive bird trying to drive the “other” bird (it’s own reflection) out of its territory. Cardinals and robins are the most notorious for attacking windows, but any bird will do it…well, any bird except a Cedar Waxwing. While other birds are squabbling with their neighbors and singing at all hours of the day to announce their territories, waxwings are relaxing. They aren’t into the whole territory scene. If two or three waxwing couples want to build a nest in the same tree, it’s totally fine. Heck, waxwings don’t even sing. No, they aren’t mute (that would make them swans); they actually call to each other quite frequently. But singing from the tops of trees, as a warning for others to stay away, is just too stressful. Waxwings have heard about the problems associated with hypertension and they want nothing to do with it.

In addition to being relaxed, there is something else that waxwings do to help ward off hypertension: they eat a proper diet. These birds wisely avoid processed food and deli meats, and want nothing to do with trans fats. A waxwing’s food of choice is fresh fruit, followed by more fresh fruit, making them true frugivores. (I didn’t even know what was a word.) Eating fruit has lots of healthy upsides, but there is one serious drawback, fermentation. Sometimes the birds get into a batch of berries that have turned, and will consequently become intoxicated (aka, drunk). Waxwings may not have an issue with hypertension, but they do have a problem with fermented fruit. More than one waxwing has spent its Friday night attending a “meeting.”

Many of my customers get all mushy when they see a male cardinal feed a bit of food to his mate, but waxwings take things even further. They not only pass food, but they’ll pass other items, too, including flower petals. And to make things even more progressive, the female will also pass things to the male…at least I think she does. It’s hard to know for sure, since both sexes look the same. It’s all about equality with this species.

Seeing a large flock of Cedar Waxwings anytime of year, Noah, is a magnificent sight, but it’s to be expected. Even during the nesting season, waxwings are continuously together to feed or just to swap stories. Although, if they get together during these scary and trying times, they had better be wearing masks. Oh, wait! Waxwings are born wearing masks. Problem solved.