By Gail Cleveland
There is a chill in the air, the flowers are fading and the Mountain Ash berries, snowberries, rose hips and ornamental crab apples will soon be the “color” in my backyard. These berries will be the winter food for one of my favorite birds, the Waxwings.
During the winter months, flocks of Waxwings circling the skies, landing on Mountain Ash trees and eating their fill are a familiar sight in western Montana. Other common foods for these birds are dogwood, hawthorn and juniper berries. In the early spring, when all the ash berries and small crab apples are gone, they resort to the snowberries in my yard. During the summer, they also feast on insects; however, 70% of their diet is fruit. The young are first fed insects, but are ready for berries after only a few days. I am sorry to say that one source says that Waxwings have a reputation for gluttony.
Most of the Waxwings within these winter flocks are Bohemian Waxwings that breed in the far north and invade the northern United States, presumably when there is a fruit shortage in the north. In the last several years, Cedar Waxwings have also been seen in the flocks or in flocks of their own during the winter. The Cedar is our summer Waxwing, breeding here and normally flying south for the winter. Their high, thin short trill is a sure sign that these birds are around during the breeding season.
How can you distinguish the Cedar from the Bohemian in these winter flocks? The easiest way for me is to look at the undertail coverts which are rusty red on the Bohemian and white in the Cedar. The Bohemian is also a bulkier bird with yellow and white on the wings and a grayer belly.
The Waxwing gets its name from the red waxy droplets on the end of the secondary flight feathers of the adults. Supposedly, this reminded people of sealing wax. The color of the droplets depends of the fruit that the bird eats. The number and the size of the droplets increase with each basic molt. Second year birds have visible red spots.
The name of the Cedar Waxwing derives from the Eastern Red Cedar, the most common juniper in the eastern United States, which is a favorite food source. The Bohemian gets its name from its lack of a permanent home and traveling in large flocks.
The only relative of the Waxwings that resides in the United States is the silky-flycatcher of southwest, the Phainopepla, a shiny black berry-eating bird with a crest like the waxwings.
Other worldwide relatives include the Japanese Waxwing that looks very much like the Bohemian and inhabits eastern Siberia. The Bohemian can be found in various parts of Asia. This is perhaps the reason that I always seem to associate these birds with a Japanese or Chinese painting.
Although I am still getting used to the change in weather, I am looking forward to seeing these Oriental beauties in my backyard and trying to discover if there are some Cedars among the Bohemians.