Klemek: Waxwings among most elegant songbirds

Blane Klemek

    Though I have frequently mentioned waxwings in various articles I’ve written about birds, as near as I can tell I’ve never written a column devoted exclusively to these particularly interesting and attractive birds.

    There are only two species of waxwings in all of North America, and both occur in Minnesota: the cedar waxwing and Bohemian waxwing. Worldwide, there is just one other species of waxwing, the Japanese waxwing of eastern Asia.

    According to Cornell’s “All About Birds”, waxwings are so named because of the “. . . waxy red secretions found on the tips of the secondaries of some birds.” And while the specific function is unknown, it is widely believed that the color helps to attract mates.

    Both species share similar features, namely their body shape, subtle head crests, black-colored face masks (especially prominent on cedar waxwings), as well as striking markings that include the aforementioned red-tipped wings, but also yellow tips at the ends of their tail feathers. Obvious differences that can help birders differentiate between the two species is that Bohemian waxwings have rusty-colored feather under their tails and white markings on their wings.

    While most birds include some fruit in their diets, waxwings are by and large fruit eaters, but do include some insects to supplement their diets and to feed offspring. Even so, during the breeding season when feeding hungry nestlings, fruit is among the most common items on the menu for the youngsters, too. It’s for this reason—feeding fruit to their young—that brown-headed cowbird chicks do not survive in a waxwing nest. Cowbirds chicks need more than fruit to live and grow.

    Waxwings are classified as songbirds, yet no one hears the song of a waxwing because they simply don’t sing! Or at least a song that’s associated with territorial defense that most other male songbirds employ. Indeed, though very vocal with their high-pitched zeee notes and assortment of whistled calls, neither species defend breeding territories as do most other birds.

    Male waxwings do, however, court females like most birds, but with a twist that is as much interesting as it is endearing. While neither species possess a true breeding/territorial song, their “true love” can be witnessed in what appears as mutual affection and tenderness. A courting male will pass food to the interested female, which is often fruit, and the female in turn passes it back to the male. This action is sometimes repeated a dozen or more times until the female seems to accept the gift and eats it.

    Waxwings are very social birds. I’ve observed hundreds of Bohemian waxwings in the late winter descend upon crabapple trees that still bear fruit. With so many mouths to feed, any fruit that’s available is quickly devoured. These vagabond birds have the incredible ability to locate fruit quickly and as soon as a food source is depleted, the birds are gone in an instant.

    During the springtime when apples trees and other fruit trees are blossoming, it’s not uncommon to observe large flocks of either species pluck flower petals off of the blossoming trees and quickly engulf them one-by-one. It’s a feeding frenzy like no other.

Waxwings’ penchant for sugary fruit is also linked to the plumage coloration we observe. The carotenoid pigments found within the fruit they eat evidently contributes directly to the red and yellow colors on their wings and tails. In fact, cedar waxwings of northeast U.S. and southeast Canada have orange tail-tips instead of yellow. It was learned that the red pigment of berries of an introduced species of honeysuckle was the reason that these populations of birds sported orange, and not the usual yellow, on the tips of their tail feathers.

    Waxwings are among the most elegant and beautiful songbirds. That we Minnesotans get to observe the only two species that exist in North America is wonderful luck as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.