Bird Watcher's General Store

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Waxwings Cool

Dear Bird Folks,

I have these cool birds eating from a berry bush outside my office window. They look like little cardinals, with a crest and all, but instead of red, they are grayish yellow. Can you help?

Ann, Montvale, NJ


Sure, Ann,

We’d be glad to help you. Anyone working in an office in Montvale, NJ deserves a little help now and then. You say they look like small cardinals, eh? Well, baby cardinals might be a good guess, if it wasn’t the middle of winter when we don’t see baby birds. Also, like we’ve said a zillion times before, birds are full grown when they fly. These birds are as big as they are ever going to be. They aren’t baby anything. You are seeing full-grown Cedar Waxwings. Waxwings are by far the most handsome bird that you will see in Montvale, or any place else in this part of the world. And this includes the over-rated cardinal. Now before all of you cardinal lovers start sending me hate mail because I had the nerve to say a discouraging word about the sacred cardinals. Cardinals eat lots of expensive sunflower seed, which will always keep them high on my list of favorites. But when it comes to looks, the flashy cardinal has to take a back seat to the subtle beauty of a Cedar Waxwing. Open any bird book and compare the two. Waxwings have the grace and style of Cary Grant, while cardinals end up being more in the league of Elton John.

The story of Cedar Waxwings is kind of unique. They are a common bird, yet most folks have never seen one, for they are rather unassuming birds. They don’t feed out in the open like robins, scream at you like blue jays or deliver babies like storks. Most people on the Cape (and New Jersey) could tell you what a piping plover looks like, yet we have a hundred times more waxwings around here and few people could describe one. Waxwings live, eat and nest right in our yards and mostly go unnoticed. They get the name waxwing from the unusual waxy red tips on some of their wing feathers. For some unknown reason, the end of the feather is naked and a red wax-like shaft is exposed.

There are two kinds of waxwings found in North America. The most common is the Cedar Waxwing, whose diet consists mostly of cedar berries, hence the name. We also occasionally see the larger Bohemian Waxwing, but Bohemians seem to enjoy hanging out in an area around Greenwich Village.

Waxwings love fruit and will go anywhere in tight flocks looking for it. Their flocks are sometimes so tight that it can lead to trouble. Once a guy brought me in a bucket full of dead waxwings that had hit his window. The lead bird must have been fooled by the glass and the other birds followed so closely that they couldn’t react in time (remember, I said they were the best looking birds, not the brightest).

Waxwings are also big time party birds. They will even leave their own nestlings to join a flock of other waxwings flying past, just to spend an afternoon feeding and gossiping with friends. And they sometimes end up drunk, really drunk, after eating berries that have become fermented. It’s fun to watch them trying to explain it to their mate when they finally make it back to the nest.

I’m glad you got to see a flock of such neat birds while you were working, Ann. If your boss complains that your work was a little sloppy that day, just tell him/her that you had been distracted by one of the world’s most handsome birds. Either that or say you had just eaten some bad berries.