Contributed by Winsor Marrett Tyler
[Published in 1950: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 197: 79-102]
Cedar waxwings impress us as being unlike most of the birds we know. We see them commonly in flocks or small companies through the greater part of the year, but we never know just when they will appear, or how numerously, for the movements of these flocks do not conform to the regular northern and southern swings of migration that the majority of North American birds make to and from their breeding grounds. Moreover, unlike most birds, there is no close relationship between the time of their arrival on their nesting grounds and the commencement of breeding.
When we become well acquainted with the waxwing we look upon him as the perfect gentleman of the bird world. There is in him a refinement of deportment and dress; his voice is gentle and subdued; he is quiet and dignified in manner, sociable, never quarrelsome, and into one of his habits, that of sharing food with his companions, we may read, without too much stress of imagination, the quality of politeness, almost unselfishness, very rare, almost unheard of, in the animal kingdom. His plumage is delicate in coloring--soft, quiet browns, grays, and pale yellow--set off, like a carnation in our buttonhole, by a touch of red on the wing.
Alexander Wilson (Wilson and Bonaparte, 1832), writing of this attractive decoration says: "Six or seven, and sometimes the whole nine, secondary feathers of the wings are ornamented at the tips with small red oblong appendages, resembling red sealing-wax; these appear to be a prolongation of the shafts, and to be intended for preserving the ends, and consequently the vanes, of the quills, from being broken and worn away by the almost continual fluttering of the bird among thick branches of the cedar. The feathers of those birds which are without these appendages are uniformly found ragged on the edges, but smooth and perfect in those on whom the marks are full and numerous."
Spring.--Spring begins late with the cedar waxwings, for although many move northward into New England in January and February and often linger for weeks, sometimes in great numbers, attracted by a plentiful supply of food, these apparently are merely wandering flocks (noted under "Winter"). The breeding birds of the Transition Zone, the real spring birds, do not arrive, it is thought, until well into May, and even then they do not start nesting until long afterward.
William Brewster (1906) ably summarizes their movements in the region about Boston, Mass., during the first part of the year. He says:
The seasonal movements of the Cedarbird are somewhat erratic and not as yet fully understood. There is apparently a double migration northward, the first flight--which is the much heavier of the two--reaching eastern Massachusetts anywhere between the last of January and the first of March. The birds which compose it appear suddenly, often in very large flocks and make themselves peculiarly conspicuous by roaming restlessly over the country, frequently visiting densely populated localities to feast on the berries of the mountain ash, the English hawthorn, Parkman's apple and other cultivated trees. They also eat asparagus berries, and they are especially fond of the berries of the red cedar or Virginia juniper. They disappear almost completely before the end of April, presumably going further north to breed, although this has never been definitely established.
The second flight, which arrives in May, is believed to be made up chiefly, if not wholly, of the birds which pass the summer with us. They appear in pairs or in small, scattered flocks which are seen almost everywhere but most frequently in apple orchards.
Courtship.--Cedarbirds spend so great a portion of the year gathered together in flocks, and when thus assembled, contrary to the custom of most birds, pay so much attention to one another, that it is often difficult to decide whether to regard some of their actions as indicating courtship or to consider them an expression of the comradeship or courtesy that seems to pervade their behavior. The passing of a berry back and forth between two birds, or along a line of birds, a procedure we may watch sometimes even in winter, may have developed from courtship feeding, and the delicate little dance, in which one of two birds hops close to the side of the other, then takes one short hop away, and back again, over and over, may have its origin in courting behavior developed in an unusually social species, although the dance may take place long before the breeding season.
Aretas A. Saunders (1938) says: "In early July one sometimes sees what appears to be courtship in these birds. At such a time, the action of the one I suppose to be the male suggests a young bird wishing to be fed. His wings tremble and whirl about, suggesting the wing motions with which a starling often accompanies its songs. The notes at such times are the beady, somewhat rattlelike ones, rather than the clear whine that this species uses most commonly."
P. M. Silloway (1904) reports: "Two waxwings were sitting near each other on a lower branch of a fir, about twenty feet from the ground. They were evidently courting. He would sidle over to her, rub his breast against hers, rub his bill caressingly upon hers, and then sidle back to his former place. The other bird would go through a similar performance."
Margaret Morse Nice (1941) describes the behavior of a pair of waxwings while they were building their nest: "I first became aware of the parents of my birds on June 19," she says, "when I heard what I took to be incessant begging from a baby bird; it proved to be the female waxwing begging from her mate with voice and violent wing movement. He fed her four times, but she continued to beg, crowding against him. Later I saw a waxwing take a piece of nesting material to a near-by cedar. On the 20th she was again begging for ten to fifteen minutes at a time."
The two following quotations are charming, clear descriptions of the courtshiplike play, one between a pair of birds, the other between members of a large flock. Speaking of a day early in summer, Harriet McCoy (1927) says:
As we came up to some sumac and other shrubs, we saw a slight movement, as of birds, near the ground. Looking closer, we were delighted to see two Cedar Waxwings perched together on a branch in a little space clear of foliage. We saw after a moment, that they seemed to be engaged in a dance or game, and we watched, half doubting our eyes. One bird had a tiny flower or very new leaf in its bill. The other, standing perhaps 6 inches away, all at once hopped close, took the leaf, and with one hop came back to its position. There it stood, straight, its posture being perhaps a cue to the other bird, who now approached and, to our wonder, received the leaf, gave one hop back and stood erect. There was a rhythm and precision about the little exercise which made it appear a conscious performance on the part of the birds and one which they seemed to enjoy greatly. We thought we had never seen anything with such a pretty grace and delicacy of movement and color. They repeated it several times and when they flew off at last, we were left with a feeling of having been audience to a scene in a fairy play.
Caroline M. Stevens (1911) writes:
Coming through an apple orchard one noontime in May, 1909, I stopped to watch a large flock of Cedar Waxwings feeding on the apple blossom petals, and then it was my good fortune to see as pretty a sight as could be imagined among birds. The attention of the birds seemed about evenly divided between eating petals and playing a sort of game. Looking from tree to tree I saw it going on all around me.
It was a game for two. One bird, taking the initiative, with a petal in his mouth, suddenly flew to his chosen playmate, alighting close beside him on the twig, at the same instant offering the petal (once it was a bit of green leaf). The other bird, though apparently taken unawares, was quick enough to catch it on the instant it was offered. Immediately, with the petal, he hopped sidewise just one small hop away from the first bird. After a pause of perhaps a second, back he came close to the bird and offering the petal, which the first bird on an instant caught from his bill, hopped away with it just one hop, paused a second, then very suddenly hopped back, offering the petal, all just as the other bird had done. And so they passed the petal back and forth, not three or four times, but twelve and fifteen times, until, tiring of the play, they flew apart, or the petal, with much hasty snatching from bill to bill becoming tattered and too small for use, was indifferently eaten by one of the birds.
In the moments of pause before the always sudden re-offering of the petal, each bird looked straight ahead; the one with the petal as if trying to conceal from the other the instant he meant to come back with it, and the one awaiting the petal as if the rules of the game forbade his watching to see when it was coming. Yet he was plainly tense and watchful, and only once did I see a bird fail to get the petal. In that instance the other bird gave him another chance at it, when he got it all right, and the game continued. But for this element of competition, this apparent keenness to take the other bird unawares, which gave the spirit of a sport to the performance, it would have more the aspect of a "dance," for it was measured, dignified, and dainty, with the quality of an old-time minuet.
Certainly throughout the time I watched, it had no observable connection with courtship, however indirectly the mating season may be responsible for it. The choosing of a partner seemed wholly casual and disinterested, and when the game palled, the birds separated as casually.
Nesting.--We in New England think of the cedar waxwing's nest as rather large, made of twigs, dry grass, and stalks of weeds, with perhaps a few feathers and bits of twine put together loosely and clumsily, but Forbush (1911) states that "in the South it is comparatively small and compact," a structure more in accord with its dainty owner.
Thomas D. Burleigh (1923) describes two nests found in Idaho: "The first. . .was fifteen feet from the ground in the top of a small slender larch at the edge of some underbrush at the side of a road. It was compactly built of larch twigs, grasses and moss, lined with the dry needles of the western white pine. The second . . .was six feet from the ground in a small Douglas fir at the edge of a field, and was built of weed stems and wool, lined with wool and dry pine needles."
Albert W. Honywill (1911), speaking of nests in Minnesota, says: "Nests were sometimes located in the Norway pines, from the noise made by the young in calling for food. Usually these nests were placed upon the extreme ends of the branches and were inaccessible. They were generally composed almost entirely of usnea moss."
O. M. Bryens (1925) points out the cedar waxwing's preference for wool as nesting material:
The material composing the nests of the Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) in this locality [Michigan] consists chiefly of wool and moss. Their nests also contain a considerable amount of small twigs, and if they are near hemlocks, they are largely of the twigs of that tree. One hemlock tree in particular that I saw Cedar Waxwings getting twigs from one summer, stands nearly on top of a hill, and was nearly killed by fire. Many of the lower branches had died, and thus there was a large amount of twigs. Cedar Waxwings were observed coming to this tree for twigs and returning to the nests, just as birds come and go from a drinking fountain.
Before there were sheep on the grounds where these observations were made, the Cedar Waxwings used the moss that hangs in rather long strings, and is found especially on tamarack, balsam, fir, and other conifers, but also on maple and birch. After sheep were present the moss was found to be used very little in the construction of the nests. Much wool was available from the barbed wire fences and some from low bushes. On the lane fences the three lower wires held wool that sheep had lost when reaching through the fences, and it was no uncommon sight to see Cedar Waxwings along the fences gathering this material during the nesting season. The past two years the grounds have not been pastured to sheep, and thus there has been no wool, and I find that the waxwings are again using the moss in their nests. Thus it appears that wool is the substance that will be used if the birds can secure it. The nests are at times lined with short stems, such as those that bear the seeds of the maple.
Mary B. Benson (1920) relates her experience in supplying twine and strips of cloth for the cedarbirds' use:
[I] began putting out string, as usual hanging it upon a clothes line on the back porch. Within half an hour the Waxwings spied it and began carrying it to the apple tree. They made no efforts to collect twigs or any other nesting material. . . .
My supply of twine threatening to become exhausted, I began tearing old cloth into strips about one-half an inch wide and from five to twelve inches in length. This, the birds liked even better; and they at once redoubled their efforts. How fast they worked, and what yards of cloth they used. . . .
I experimented with colors, and although they apparently preferred white, they did use several strips of bright pink outing flannel when the supply of white cloth was low. . . .
We called it [the nest] "The Waxwing's Rag Bag."
Edward R. Ford writes to Mr. Bent of the "habit of the cedar waxwing taking material from active nests of other species of birds for use in its own nest." "On three occasions," he says, "I have seen it take bits from kingbirds' nests; in two instances the nests were abandoned by the owners (in one case the structure was rendered so flimsy as to allow the eggs to fall to the ground); the third nest, however, did not suffer so much, and the kingbirds did not desert it. I have also observed cedarbirds taking material from the nest of a yellow-throated vireo."
The height of the nest above ground varies considerably. Thomas D. Burleigh (1925) describes one in Georgia "forty-five feet from the ground at the outer end of a limb of a large white oak," and another "fifty feet from the ground in top of one of the larger trees."
A. Dawes DuBois records in his notes four nests, found in Minnesota, New York, and Wisconsin; the Price County, Wis., nest was 8 feet from the ground in a fork between upright branches of a small plum tree in a garden; the other three were in apple trees, at heights ranging from 6 to 20 feet above ground; the highest nest was near the end of a branch of a large, old apple tree on a constantly traveled, dusty, public road. A nest in an orchard was built chiefly of grass blades and stems, with a few slender, woody twigs, the longest 6 1/2 inches; a coarse, stiff straw of grass measured 7 1/4 inches, but most of the material was comparatively soft; one very slender grass stem, folded twice, was 15 inches long; there were numerous long shreds of grass and a few weed stems were intermingled. Outwardly this nest had a slovenly, rather formless appearance, but the inner portion was a well-formed and compactly-woven cup, lined with long, fine rootlets, together with grasses and a very few small bits of plant down. It measured externally 5 to 6 inches in diameter by 3.5 in height; the internal diameter was 2.5 and the depth 1.95 inches.
He says of another nest: "On the 7th of September I lifted this nest from the branch with the intention of dissecting it. Feeling something squirming within, I placed it on the ground and a white-footed mouse came out through a hole in the side, with a family of very young, blind sucklings clinging to her teats."
Dr. Paul Harrington mentions in his notes a nesting colony of cedar waxwings in a clump of white pines near Toronto, Ontario. "There were 11 nests in all within a radius of 25 feet, on horizontal pine limbs, all within 20 feet of the ground. One nest had four fresh eggs, one held two, and two others had one egg each; five other nests were more or less complete, and two were half finished. I returned to examine these nests a week later and all were deserted." On another occasion he found a nest containing five fresh eggs, on which both parent birds were incubating; "they were sitting in the same direction, and this apparently had been a common practice, as the nest was quite markedly shaped, so as to allow both birds to sit comfortably in the nest."
Charles W. Richmond (1888) says: "The Cedarbird does not nest till late in the season, and is sometimes eccentric about choosing a nesting place. A nest found within the city limits [Washington, D.C.] was situated in a lamp post. . . . It will forsake its nest on the slightest provocation, even after laying one or more eggs."
Aretas A. Saunders (1938), writing of Allegany State Park, New York, says: "Nests of the cedar waxwing are found in various trees or shrubs in and about the school grounds, chiefly in the Aspen-Cherry and camping grounds areas, but sometimes in Maple-Beech-Hemlock. The nests are mostly rather high up. . . .
Occasional nests are lower down. One in 1927 was only six feet from the ground in a staghorn sumach (Rhus typhina). One in 1935 was in a willow and about four feet from the ground."
James E. Crouch (1936) states: "The measurements of a typical Cedar Waxwing's nest are as follows: Outside depth, 4 - 4 1/2"; inside depth, 3 - 3 3/4"; outside diameter, 4 1/2 - 5"; inside diameter, 3 - 3 1/4"; and thickness of walls, 3/4 - 1 3/4". The nest is completed in five to seven days and egg laying starts immediately. . . . One egg is laid each day until the complement is completed, and incubation starts at the laying of the first egg. Regardless of this fact they all hatch at the same time." Mr. Crouch's observations were made in the vicinity of Ithaca, N.Y.
Aretas A. Saunders (1911) reports on an interesting study of an unusual nesting, "ten nests of the Cedar Waxwing [at West Haven, Conn.] in a small tract of about five acres," an instance of the close association characteristic of the bird being carried into the nesting season. Even when flying off to procure food, the birds traveled in small companies. Mr. Saunders says: "The parent birds from the different nests made trips for food in small flocks, usually of four or five. The cherry trees where most of the food was obtained grew along the shore about a quarter of a mile from the nests. The small flocks usually gathered in the tops of a few dead stubs that stood above the thicket, and left these in a body for the cherry trees, returned in the same manner when the food was obtained and then scattered slowly to their respective nests."
Mr. Saunders (1911) adds: "Late in November, after the leaves had fallen, I visited the thicket again to see how many Waxwing nests in all were there. I found seven more nests evidently of this species, making a total of seventeen. These other nests were some distance from the ones I studied and much more scattered. All of the seventeen, however, could be included within a radius of 150 yards."
Mr. Saunders (1911) says: "I watched incubating birds for some time and so far as I could tell, only the female performs this duty." James E. Crouch (1936) concurs with this statement, saying, "Incubation was performed entirely by the female," but Dr. Arthur A. Allen (1930) states that both birds "take turns sitting on the eggs."
Crouch (1936) describes thus the building of the nest:
Nest building is an interesting process. I watched the construction of one nest placed in the forking branch of a willow tree. The birds worked very vigorously both in bringing material and in shaping the nest into form. Although they both carried materials, one bird seemed to do most of the shaping and weaving together of the nest. As nearly as I could tell, it was the female which did this shaping. However, because of the similarity of plumage, it may be that I was mistaken in this observation. Inasmuch as there is contradiction in the literature on this point, it must be studied further. The birds work very close together. They both come to the nest with their bills full of cattail down or small twigs. The male deposits his on the nest and the female then follows with hers. She stays and by much twisting and turning of the entire body and use of the bill, the material is woven into the nest. When this is finished, she calls and is joined by the male, who usually waits nearby, and they then fly off together for more materials.
Speaking of the return of waxwings to a former nesting locality, Saunders (1911) says:
Evidently Waxwings do not necessarily return to the same locality in which they have nested before.
It is evident that the presence or absence of Waxwings in a given locality is due to the abundance or lack of supply of the berry or fruit that forms the major part of their food. A later experience in the vicinity of Bozeman, Montana, confirms this. During the summer of 1908 there were no Waxwings that I observed in the vicinity of Bozeman. The next year, however, they appeared in June and were abundant throughout the summer. During this time I found two Waxwing nests in shade trees along the streets of Bozeman and could doubtless have found many if I had had time for search. In this region the service berry (Amelanchier alnifolia) forms the principal article of food. This berry was very abundant about Bozeman in 1909 and correspondingly scarce in 1908. During the summer of 1910, in a few short visits to Bozeman, I again found Waxwings quite common and service berries fairly abundant.
The waxwing breeds later in the season than most birds do, at a time when many of the berries and fruits, which the bird uses as food for its young, are ripe. Normally it breeds in July or early August, but sometimes much later. W. J. Hamilton, Jr. (1933) reports a bird incubating four eggs on September 27 near Ithaca, N.Y.
Eggs.--[AUTHOR'S NOTE: The cedar waxwing lays three to five eggs, rarely six. These are usually ovate and have little or no gloss. They closely resemble the eggs of the Bohemian waxwing, having the same peculiar coloration, but they are, of course, smaller. The ground color is pale bluish gray, pale "mineral gray," or "glaucous-gray." They are sparingly marked with dots or small spots of black, or blackish brown, scattered more or less irregularly over the surface. Some eggs show underlying spots or blotches of pale shades of drab.
The measurements of 50 eggs in the United States National Museum average 21.8 by 15.6 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 24.4 by 15.8, 22.4 by 16.3, 18.8 by 15.2, and 20.3 by 14.7 millimeters.]
Young.--The length of the cedar waxwing's incubation period is given by various writers as follows: Saunders (1911), 12 days; Burns (1915), 10 to 12 days; Knight (1908), about 14 days; Forbush (1911), about 14 days; Crouch (1936), 12 to 16 days.
Aretas A. Saunders (1911) gives a careful description of the development of young waxwings. He says:
The young when born are perfectly naked, without the natal down found in most young birds. The first few days they grow in size only. By the fourth day a row of small black pimples shows along the middle of the back where the first feathers are starting through. In six days the feathers of the back and the wing quills come through and pimples begin to show on the breast. By seven or eight days the eyes begin to open and more pimples appear on top of the head. In eight or nine days the head and breast feathers appear, the feathers and the wing quills come through and the pimples begin to show on the breast. By ten to twelve days the throat and tail feathers appear, the wing quills and head feathers break their sheaths, and the creamy white streak above the eye, a mark of the young birds only, begins to show plainly. By twelve to fourteen days the eyes are wide open on all the feathers are unsheathed or unsheathing except those forming the black patch on the forehead and about the eyes. These feathers are last of all to appear and do not break the sheaths till about the fifteenth day or later, sometimes after the young have left the nest. This fact appears to have led some writers to state that young Waxwings do not have this black mark. By fourteen to eighteen days the young are fully fledged and leave the nest shortly, being able to fly a little as soon as they leave. For a few days after leaving they may usually be found in the vicinity of the nest, the whole brood perched together in a row, with necks stretched and bills pointing up in the air in the same manner as the adults.
Of brooding he says: "After the young hatch the female broods closely for several days until they become partially feathered and the eyes begin to open. During this time she seldom leaves the nest and never for more than an hour at a time. After this she broods but little in the daytime but continues to brood at night until the young are about twelve days old. I believe the male does not brood at all." Mr. Saunders states that the young birds left the nest when approximately 16 days old, and that the parents "feed the young only at long intervals, rarely as short as fifteen minutes and usually from three quarters of an hour to an hour or more."
George G. Phillips (1913) illustrates the tameness of young cedar waxwings by a personal experience he had with a brood whose parents had disappeared. He raised them by hand, feeding them with berries and later on bread and milk. They became very tame, and even after he liberated them they came to him like pets. "Wherever I was about the place," he says, "they were liable to appear. Each morning as I stepped on the porch their cry greeted me, and instantly four little monoplanes would be coming full speed toward me. I always threw up my arm for a perch, and they would suffer me to carry them thus about the grounds and to the house." ***
The juvenal cedar waxwing seems rather disheveled in comparison with its spruce parent: the streaks on the breast and the restriction of the black about the eye detract from the trim stylishness of the adult.
Above, including sides of head and wing coverts, olive-brown. Below, paler with darker broad fused stripes on the throat, breast, sides and flanks, the chin paler, the abdomen and crissum dull white often yellow and buff tinged. A crest not well marked is found on the crown. Anterior frontal feathers, lores and partial orbital ring are dull black; posterior quadrant of orbital ring, submalar streak and narrow superciliary line white or pale buff. Chin bordered laterally by dull black. Wings and tail slate-black, the primaries ashy edged, occasionally some of the secondaries tipped with bright vermillion wax-like appendages, the tail terminated with lemon-yellow band, the rectrices also occasionally but infrequently tipped with similar red appendages.
A partial postjuvenal molt, involving the contour plumage and the wing coverts, but not the rest of the wings or the tail, begins in September. This produces a first-winter plumage, which is practically indistinguishable from that of the adult, the brown being much lighter, the crest well marked, and the breast not streaked. The red appendages on the wings and tail are usually more frequent in adult than in young birds.
The nuptial plumage is acquired by wear, which is not very obvious, and a complete postnuptial molt occurs in both one year old birds and adults, usually beginning in September. The sexes are practically alike in all plumages, though the female usually has less black on the chin, and perhaps fewer red appendages.]
The Cedar-bird gets five-sixths of its food from the vegetable kingdom and at times is destructive to flowers of fruit trees, and later to the ripening fruit especially of cherries. Sometimes local control measures are necessary to preserve the crop.
Destruction of cultivated fruit is an index to the natural feeding habits of the bird, wild fruits being decidedly favored. Those most frequently taken are juneberries, strawberries, cedar berries, and the various wild cherries. The only other vegetable food of importance in the diet of the Cedar-bird is flowers.
The animal food (one-sixth of the whole) comprises quite a variety of items, of which beetles probably are most important. Leaf beetles, including the locust leaf beetle (Odontota dorsalis), and weevils are forms detrimental to the forest. Carpenter ants, sawfly larvae, caterpillars, cicadas, and scale insects are other tree pests eaten. The other noteworthy items of animal food are crane-flies, spiders, mayflies, dragon flies, and stone flies.
The Cedar-bird in some places is called Cankerbird, on account of a marked fondness for cankerworms, and it has a great reputation also as a foe of the elm leaf beetle. In New England it has several times been observed to clean up local infestations of this pest. The species has been observed to clear orchards of the tent caterpillars and to feed also on larvae of the forest tent caterpillar, the willow sawfly, the basket-worm of cedar, and the spotted willow leaf beetle.
Except in the orchard of ripening cherries, the Cedar-bird is a desirable visitor. Although ordinarily it may not be highly useful, at times evidently it attacks some pests in a wholesale way. Then, just as it is able to do much harm by feeding in flocks on buds or fruit, it is able to do much by massed attack on some destructive insect. Its record in this respect is excellent.
H. H. Kopman (1915) speaks of the cedar waxwing's feeding in Louisiana: "At New Orleans, little is seen of it until about Feb. 1, when it arrives to feed on the fruit of hackberry and Japan privet, and the flowers of the elm. It later feeds on the blossoms of the pecan, and finally on the fruit of the mulberry."
The voracious appetite of the cedarbirds has attracted many comments. Forbush (1911) exclaims: "Such gourmandizers as they were! They ate until they could eat no more, only to sit about on the branches or play with one another a while, and then eat again." And Audubon (1842) remarks:
The appetite of the Cedar-bird is of so extraordinary a nature as to prompt it to devour every fruit or berry that comes in its way. In this manner they gorge themselves to such excess as sometimes to be unable to fly, and suffer themselves to be taken by the hand. Indeed I have seen some which, although wounded and confined in a cage, have eaten of apples until suffocation deprived them of life in the course of a few days. When opened afterwards, they were found to be gorged to the mouth.
Charles H. Rogers (1907) mentions cedarbirds drinking the sap flowing from broken maple trees, and Prof. Maurice Brooks, writing to Mr. Bent, says: "We were in the spruce belt on Gaudineer Knob, Randolph County, W. Va., searching for red crossbills. The spruces were in bloom, the carpels hanging with tiny drops of a sweetish gum. This is a favorite food of the crossbills, and we saw, on one occasion, a large flock of cedar waxwings feeding steadily on these flower carpels. It was not a case of eating insects in the flowers; with glasses we watched the birds strip off and swallow the flower parts themselves."
There are several records of cedarbirds eating the petals of apple blossoms. William Brewster (1937) speaks of the birds thus, as he watched them on May 14, 1905:
The apple trees at the Farm were in full bloom today. On one of them we found a party of 5 Cedar Birds. . .all of which were busily engaged in picking off and devouring the petals of the blossoms. I watched them at close range (about 20 feet) for fully 15 minutes. During this time each bird must have eaten a dozen or more petals. These were sometimes swallowed whole (not without some difficulty), sometimes torn into halves before being swallowed. As the birds remained nearly motionless the whole time, simply bending down and taking the petals within easy reach without exercising any apparent choice, I was convinced that they were eating only the petals and not selecting those that may have had insects on them. This habit of the Cedar Bird (if it be really a habit) is quite new to me.
Among others, Ben. J. Blencoe (1923) has also observed this habit repeatedly, and Ralph Hoffman speaks of it in his manuscript notes.
Cedar waxwings are adroit flycatchers. We frequently see them, generally in small companies, flying out from a high perch, oftenest, perhaps, over a river or pond, to snatch up insects gathered in large assemblies. The birds appear as adept as the true flycatchers and, like them, return as a rule to a perch after each capture. William Brewster (1906) speaks of their turning their flycatching skill to the snapping up of tiny snowflakes floating in the air. He says: "When no insects are on wing Cedarbirds sometimes practise the art of flycatching on inanimate but rapidly moving objects. Thus on March 1, 1866, I saw the members of a large flock engaged in chasing and capturing whirling snowflakes, at which they launched out in quick succession from the upper branches of a tall elm. . . . Probably the birds were only amusing themselves, although they may also have enjoyed slaking their thirst with snow fresh from the clouds."
At first the young are fed on insects, presumably by regurgitation, but early in their lives, within a few days after hatching, berries are added to their diet. The adults bring the berries to the nest several at a time, stored temporarily in the gullet. W. E. Shore, of Toronto, Ontario, writes to Mr. Bent an amusing account of their delivery: "Having set up the camera at a nest in an apple tree, I retired to the blind to wait and was surprised to find that within 15 minutes both parents were back in the tree, but apparently empty-mouthed. However, one bird hopped to the side of the nest, and the two well-feathered young shot their heads up and opened their bills, action which I considered overly optimistic. But they apparently knew their business, for, as I watched through the binoculars, the adult gave a slight jerk of his head, and to my surprise a ripe, unbroken cherry appeared in his bill. This was promptly dropped into the bill of a young one, and again the head jerked, and another cherry appeared. This happened seven times; then the bird flew off, and the mate came to the nest and went through the same performance. The whole thing so resembled a magician producing cards out of thin air with the time-honored twist of the wrist and jerk of the hand that I could almost hear the word 'Presto' emanating from the solemn-faced birds as they continued to produce cherry after cherry."
Howard L. Cogswell says in his notes from Pasadena, Calif.: "This species is often very abundant throughout the cities in winter, especially in sections where camphortrees and peppertrees are planted. Of late years the peppertrees, long a recognized favorite for the berry-eating birds, have been yielding poorer and poorer crops in the Los Angeles area. As a consequence, in the Pasadena area at least, the waxwings and their often-present associate, the robin, are now to be seen chiefly in the camphortrees used extensively to line the streets of residential districts. From their arrival in numbers in November until about February 1, the small cherrylike drupe of this tree seems to be the chief food of the waxwings. Then, when these are gone, they turn to the various berries on ornamental bushes in gardens, such as Pyracantha, Cotoneaster, and Eugenia. Many times I have also seen waxwings eating from persimmons and apples allowed to remain on the trees until overripe. Outside the city, they feed on toyon, mistletoe, coffeeberries, the fruits of the sycamore tree, and wild grapes in the lowland willow regions."
Mr. DuBois watched some cedar waxwings that "were feeding on geometrid caterpillars, which were defoliating the trees. They picked the caterpillars from the leaves, and sometimes they struck them against a twig or branch before eating them. They were particular to wipe their bills on the branch after eating. Sometimes a bird would make a little fluttering jump to get the caterpillar, or occasionally would take one in midair. One bird flew out from a branch and seized a caterpillar that was hanging by a gossamer thread several feet away. He lighted on a branch, with the caterpillar in his bill, before eating it."
Behavior.--One of the most conspicuous features in the behavior of the cedarbird is its tameness. Albert W. Honywill, Jr. (1911), gives a striking instance of this trait in a wild bird he met in Minnesota: "On Aug. 4, 1908, four young birds were found that were not quite able to fly. While arranging them to be photographed, one of the old birds came and fed them. The old birds appeared to be fearless, and fed the young ones blueberries and wild cherries while I held them enclosed in my hands, and even tried to get to their young when I pushed them gently aside."
There are several records showing how readily the young birds adapt themselves to confinement. As an example, Mrs. E. A. Matteson (1924) says of a fledgling waxwing, injured soon after leaving the nest:
He became the joy of the household. He was given a large, roomy cage, with the door left open by day. . . . Very soon he began to sit on a paper in my friend's lap, unthread the machine when she sewed, peep into the workbasket to pull bits of threads, snap his bill quite sharply and pick at one to assert his rights, and, in his playful mood, when one tells him to dance he prances all along the perch with wings drooped, with a very graceful movement of the head and his crest erect. . . . He will hop upon the shoulder of the master of the house and drink milk from a spoon. He is perfectly happy, will pass an open window never thinking of going out--in fact, is afraid of the outside world. . . . Dandy is a little over eight years of age, and still active and bright.
Alexander Wilson (Wilson and Bonaparte, 1832), in his inimitable manner, points out the indifference with which the cedarbird regards a scarecrow: "Nor are they easily intimidated by the presence of Mr. Scarecrow; for I have seen a flock deliberately feasting on the fruit of a loaded cherry tree, while on the same tree one of these guardian angels, and a very formidable one too, stretched his stiffened arms, and displayed his dangling legs, with all the pomposity of authority."
The berry-passing habit is mentioned under "Courtship." Between two birds, back and forth, it is common enough, but the passing of a berry along a row of birds is much more rarely seen. We may watch a flock of cedarbirds for days and see no trace of it; in fact many authors, Wilson and Audubon, for example, do not mention the habit at all. Nuttall (1832), however, on the authority of "my friend S. Green, Esq., of Boston," says: "This friendly trait is carried so far, that an eye-witness assures me he has seen one among a row of these birds seated upon a branch dart after an insect, and offer it to his associate when caught, who very disinterestedly passed it to the next, and each delicately declining the offer, the morsel has proceeded backwards and forwards before it was appropriated."
One hundred years later Dr. Thomas S. Roberts (1932), an unquestioned authority, describes the habit thus: "Even more surprisingly, they may be seen to pass some tidbit, a ripe cherry most likely, from one to the other all along the line and then back again, several times in succession without any bird being impolite enough to eat it!"
Of the birds in the air Dr. Dayton Stoner (1932) says: "In their flights a close order is maintained and sometimes a large flock will suddenly wheel, the members behaving as a unit and, darting downward, alight as a group in the top of a tree, whence thereupon a chorus of low, tremulous whistles soon proceeds."
Crouch (1936), writing of the relations of cedar waxwings toward other birds, says:
They always seem to be friendly. While I was watching the birds on July 15, another Waxwing made its appearance. It happened that the female was off the nest at that time, and instead of there being a fight, as one might expect, there was nothing of the kind. The female merely flew quickly to the nest and covered the eggs, while the other two birds sat on a branch about eight feet away. This same procedure is followed when other species come close to the nest. A Catbird approached to within two feet of the nest one day. There was no fight. They merely flew at him, and one bird went on the nest. The other sat close by for a few minutes and then flew off. Similarly, a Chickadee visited the nest and hopped right into it and picked around. The owner came into the nest directly, but did not chase the Chickadee away. He stayed within a few inches of the nest, peering about with curiosity.
Dr. Arthur A. Allen (1930) makes the point that cedarbirds have nothing to gain by fighting, for their food is of such a nature that there is either more of it than they could consume before it spoils or else there is none at all. Since they can fly long distances to feeding places, they do not need to defend a feeding territory about their nests.
Charles H. Feltes (1936) gives an interesting account (summarized also in Bird-Banding, vol. 6, p. 104, 1935) of trapping and banding 4,010 cedar waxwings in California. He attracted the birds with a bait of dried raisins and was especially successful when he left live birds in the traps as decoys.
Arthur E. Staebler and Leslie D. Case (1940) note an instance of "community bathing of the Cedar Waxwing," another example of their social behavior. The say: "Between 55 and 60 Waxwings were in a small aspen tree next to a pool of stagnant water in a depression on the beach of Lake Michigan. Some of the birds were bathing in the water while others were sitting quietly or preening themselves in the tree. Periodically one or several of the bathing birds would fly up into the tree and almost immediately they would be replaced at the pool by others from the tree. Thus there were always about 15 or 20 birds from the flock bathing at any one time."
Bradford Torrey (1885) gives us this delightfully dainty snapshot of the cedarbird: "Taking an evening walk, I was stopped by the sight of a pair of cedar-birds on a stone wall. They had chosen a convenient flat stone, and were hopping about upon it, pausing every moment or two to put their little bills together. What a loving ecstasy possessed them! Sometimes one, sometimes the other, sounded a faint lisping note, and motioned for another kiss. But there is no setting forth the ineffable grace and sweetness of their chaste behavior."
Voice.--The cedar waxwing's voice is very high in pitch, something like a hiss with very little tone quality, except when the note is uttered at its highest pitch and given with increased intensity, when it becomes almost a long, clear whistle. Even then the voice is not loud and does not carry far, but when heard from near at hand it is sharply piercing. Generally we detect an effect of vibration in a prolonged hiss, owing doubtless to the breaking up of the note into many minute parts. The division is so coarse, sometimes, as to give the note a rattling effect, sometimes so fine as to be nearly imperceptible. The variability of this simple sound enables the bird, in our imagination at least, to express different degrees of emotion--content, excitement, or alarm. Thus Helen Granger Whittle (1928), who for 18 months cared for a young cedarbird, whose flight feathers never developed, found that it had a wealth of notes. "Only one was loud," she says, "a piercing danger note, and even that was sibilant in quality. A modification of this note, softer and reiterated, was a complaining note, his only tiresome vocalization. His 'dinner' note called for food; he had a bedtime note, and what I called a 'nesting' note." Mrs. Whittle also reports that her bird, which on post-mortem examination proved to be a female, used to sing. "On November 6th," she says, "as his cage stood in a sunny window and I was busy at a little distance, I was delighted and amazed to hear from him a little song. . . . This first song was not long, and not at all loud, but it was distinctly musical and pleasing. It was made up of little trills, interspersed with his usual soft single notes. . . . It was a nearly continuous warbling, a varied arrangement of short trills, some higher, some lower, with a few connecting or finishing single notes, and occasionally a glide. One needed to be rather near to get all the modulations, as the voice was soft."
N. S. Goss (1891) mentions thus a similar song: "They are generally spoken of as birds without a song, and their feeble attempt is hardly worthy to be called one; they do, however, at times, utter low, warbling notes, with tremulous wings, in a manner expressive of love and joy; in sound very similar to their lisping call notes, but much softer. It is evidently not intended for outsiders, for its voice is scarcely audible twenty paces away."
William Brewster (1906) calls attention to a note, evidently of rare occurrence. He says:
Various writers have asserted that the Cedar Waxwing has no vocal utterances other than the thin, hissing calls which are familiar to everyone. I have heard it give a succession of loud, full notes, rather mellow in quality and not unlike some of those which Tree Swallows use in spring. On several occasions I have known them to be uttered by a single Waxwing that had just left a feeding flock and was circling rather high in air, over a field, performing what looked like a song flight. I suspect, however, that these swallow-like calls represent cries of alarm or of apprehension, rather than song notes, for sounds very like them are often made by wounded Waxwings.
Aretas A. Saunders (1935) records a striking note, saying: "Only once have I heard any other sound [beside the common note] from this species. Then, when I found and caught a bird that had broken its wing against a wire, it literally shrieked with fright. The sound was high-pitched, loud, and strident, strongly suggesting the voice of the Kingbird."
In his studies of "Vibration Frequencies of Passerine Bird Song," Albert R. Brand (1938) says: "The difference in frequency between the first three [birds showing highest frequency], Blackpoll, Grasshopper Sparrow and Cedar Waxwing, is only about half a note, and is so small and the pitch so high, that an ear would have to be remarkably accurate to recognize the pitch difference."
Margaret Morse Nice (1941) points out the usefulness of the cedar waxwing's voice. She says: "A peculiarity of the Cedar Waxwing was its habitual use of the characteristic note whenever it took flight. This species has nothing in its plumage resembling 'banner markings'; its 'flight note' is evidently an important device for keeping the flock together, and it must be particularly valuable with this bird that is apt to suddenly take off on long flights."
Field marks.--There is no mistaking the cedarbird--a little, pale-brown bird with a conspicuous crest--for any other species except the Bohemian waxwing. This larger bird has a white patch in the wing and is chestnut under the tail, whereas the cedarbird has no white in the wing and has a white crissum.
Enemies.--The cedar waxwing has no special enemies, only those that prey commonly on most small birds. In the time of the older ornithologists, however, the bird was shot for food, and the slaughter of great numbers was made easy by their habit of flying in close flocks.
Audubon's (1842) remarks on the subject are interesting in these days of wildlife conservation. He says: "They fatten, and become so tender and juicy as to be sought by every epicure for the table. I have known an instance of a basketful of these little birds having been forwarded to New Orleans as a Christmas present. The donor, however, was disappointed in his desire to please his friend in that city, for it was afterwards discovered that the steward on the steamer, in which they were shipped, made pies of them for the benefit of the passengers."
Herbert Friedmann (1929) speaks of the cedarbird as "an uncommon victim" of the cowbird. He says: "This is to be expected when we consider that this bird starts nesting after the laying season of the Cowbird is well past its height. There are cases on record from various places--New York, Connecticut, and Montana. Aside from these few records there are no data available."
In a later paper on this subject, he (1934) adds two records, both in western Canada.
Fall.--If we look for the waxwings in New England in the fall, after their late breeding season is over and the young are fully grown, say in mid-September, we often find them collected in a small flock of a dozen or so, perched high in a dead tree or in the top of a leafless bush. For a time they sit erect, silent, and motionless; then, in a body--a half dozen or more perhaps--they start out into the air on a steady flight, flying with a few rapid flips of the wings, then a short pause, a flight slightly undulating like that of English sparrows. At first we may surmise that they are flycatching, pursuing the insects that are abundant in the air at this season of the year, but as we keep the birds in our eye we see that they neither turn nor pause, but hold straight onward in a protracted, uninterrupted flight. They may even pass out of sight, 200 or 300 yards away, flying all together, but in a loose flock, and if we wait, watching for their possible return, we see that they do return, back to the same tree, even to the same branches they left not 5 minutes before. Here they rest for a while, standing straight up on their perches, like little falcons, silent as before.
Some few, however, may not have flown with the others but stay behind at their temporary headquarters; on the next flight, however, every one may fly away, leaving the tree empty while they make a circuit far out and back. In these long flights the birds are nearly silent--we hear from them only an occasional faint, hissing whisper. The flights are perhaps taken for exercise in which the young birds join, and they may serve as preparation for a long migration later in the season.
Winter.--Cedarbirds appear to us at their best advantage when they arrive in New England in the late winter months or early in the spring and gather in large flocks in the trees where there is a bountiful food supply. The "cedar pastures," to use an old New England term, furnish one of their favorite foods, and the cultivated rowan trees, the European mountain-ash, laden with red berries supply another. One of these trees, which stood for years in my front yard in Lexington, Mass., was a rendezvous of the cedarbirds almost every winter and spring. Long before my time the tree had been famous for its cedarbirds, which by their numbers and tameness often attracted the attention of merely casual passersby. From my windows I could study the birds at short range for hours at a time, and the following glimpses of them, adapted and condensed from the records in my journal written with the birds only a few yards away, show their behavior at this season of the year.
A company of the birds often drops into the tree from high in the air, way above the surrounding elms, coming down almost perpendicularly with wings closed until just before they come to rest in the ash tree. They begin at once to pick off the berries. They seem in a hurry, as if ravenously hungry, and eager to get at the food. They lean downward to reach the berries hanging in a cluster below them, snatch one, and, pull it it free, straighten up, and, with the bill almost vertical, manipulate the berry until they get a good hold on it. Sometimes in throwing the head back, they give the berry a little toss and catch it again; sometimes, but very rarely, they drop a berry in this way. When feeding they almost always remain near together, often side by side, not scattered widely in the tree, but they are restless and move constantly from one branch to another.
They eat their fill, then fly up to the branches of an overhanging elm where they remain quiet for many minutes. In spite of the strong wind they appear not to seek shelter from it but between their visits to the ash tree sit in little groups, often in rows, high on the exposed elm branches, facing the blustering, biting wind, riding the swaying branches. When perched thus they squat down close to their perch and lean forward so that their backs are almost parallel to the ground, their heads drawn backward and downward close to the body between the shoulders. Sometimes they drop to the ground and drink from a puddle of melted snow, then they fly back to the ash tree, pulling off the fruit again and tossing the berries about before swallowing them. There is a constant restlessness in the flock. There may be 75 or more birds in the tree, all busily feeding, and five minutes later not a bird is in sight. Sometimes as many as half the flock, 30 or more, will leave the tree suddenly, twist rapidly around the tops of the elm trees, then, rising clear of the branches, steer straight northward and disappear in the distance.
The restlessness so characteristic of these winter flocks sometimes mounts to seeming panic. Yet this feeling, apparently, seldom spreads to all the members of the gathering. Even when a large proportion sweeps away into the air, the remainder may continue to feed on, uninfluenced by the exodus of the others. Also, those that leave the tree in these precipitous flights do not start necessarily from adjacent branches, but quite the reverse: one flies from here, near us, another from the opposite side of the tree. Indeed, one of two birds sitting side by side may fly, leaving the other undisturbed. Very different from the behavior of a flock of sparrows in this regard! And all the time, whether they are feeding or resting between meals, the birds keep up their gentle, hissing whisper.
Nathan Clifford Brown (1906) describes an impressive migration of cedarbirds and robins that he saw in Camden, S.C., on February 4, 1905. He says:
When I first looked out of doors, Robins and Cedar-birds were flying over in large numbers, going about west-northwest. It soon became evident that the flight was unusual, and at twenty minutes to nine o'clock I took up a position at a window from which I had an unobstructed view for long distances towards the east, north and west. Here for an hour and a half, pencil and paper in hand, I endeavored to count the passing birds.
The Robins flew in open order and were little more numerous at one time than another. The Cedar-birds, however, though many of them also went by in open order, were mostly gathered in masses containing from twenty to four hundred birds or more each. They swept along very rapidly. Their largest masses suggested scudding clouds and were decidedly impressive. The Robins moved a good deal more slowly. Both species flew at altitudes varying from twenty to one hundred yards from the ground, and most of the birds passed within a distance of one hundred and fifty yards from my window--none, I think, farther away than about an eighth of a mile.
At ten minutes past ten o'clock I was obliged to take up some work which was awaiting me. But I frequently looked out of the window after that hour, and could detect no diminution in the number of passing birds until after one o'clock p.m. All afternoon they flew by in gradually diminishing numbers, a good many Robins tarrying for brief periods in the fields before my window. Throughout the day the direction of the flight was the same, and there was practically no retrograding; altogether I saw less than a hundred birds coming back, all Robins.
I found that I had counted a total of twenty thousand four hundred birds in the hour and a half, at least fourteen thousand of which were Cedar-birds. These figures are much inside the mark. Between ten minutes past ten a.m. and one o'clock p.m. twice the number of birds that I had previously counted must have gone by. A multitude had passed before I began counting. Ten thousand, at the lowest estimate possible, must have followed during the remainder of the afternoon. In the course of the day, therefore, many more than sixty thousand birds passed over that part of Camden which I overlooked. I believe that seventy-five thousand--fifty thousand Cedar-birds--would be too low an estimate. The path of the flight also extended south of my position at the window. I cannot say how far it extended, and I can offer no estimate of the number of birds which passed on that side.
R. H. Palmer (1922) speaks of meeting the cedarbird in winter in various parts of Mexico: at Tehuantepec, which is "but a hundred feet or so above sea-level, is very hot, and has an abundance of irrigated tropical vegetation"; at Mexico City, which "is at 7,600 feet elevation, and has a cool climate; its vegetation is of the Oregon or northern California type"; at Monterey, which "but a few hundred feet above the sea, is very hot, and has the floral and faunal aspect, as well as the climate, of southwest Texas. All of which goes to show that the Cedar Waxwing in winter shows little choice among different climates and surroundings."
Wilbur F. Smith reports waxwings lingering in large numbers, estimated at 5,000 birds, on St. Armands Key, Fla. Under date of March 26, 1943, he writes to Mr. Bent: "The flocks of waxwings are still about Sarasota. They completely cleaned up the fruit of the cabbage palms on the key and then moved to the mainland and fed on the palm berries there. The mulberries are ripening, and the birds eat these also. Today I watched a flock of several hundreds gathering the fruit from one of these trees."
A. F. Skutch sends Mr. Bent the following account of the waxwings in their winter quarters in Central America: "The cedar waxwing is a regular winter visitant to Central America, fairly abundant in the Guatemalan highlands, increasingly rare farther southward and at lower elevations. It reaches its southernmost known limit in Costa Rica, where it is not often seen. One of the latest of the immigrants to arrive, it rarely appears before January. In my two years in the Guatemalan highlands, I failed to see a single bird during the closing months of the year, although during these months I was constantly afield, in 1933 on the Sierra de Tecpan (7,000 - 10,000 feet), in the Department of Chimaltenango; while during the following year I traveled widely, largely by horseback, over the western mountains. Yet in February 1933 the birds suddenly appeared in large flocks on the Sierra de Tecpan and were repeatedly seen until the following May 12. They frequently linger well into May and even in Costa Rica have been recorded as late as May 7.
"The sociable nature of the cedar waxwing is not altered by its sojourn between the Tropics. The birds are almost always found in flocks, containing from a dozen to perhaps 100 individuals, although groups of more than 50 are in my experience rare. Occasionally a lone bird is seen, or two or three together. As in the more northerly parts of their range, they perch close together in exposed positions well up in the trees, delivering their low, far-away, lisping notes, each so slight an utterance, yet so stirring in its multiplication by scores of voices. If the flock be divided between neighboring trees, some of the birds will constantly be passing back and forth between them; and of a sudden, with a whir of wings, the entire company takes the air, wheels about, and comes to rest again in some more distant tree. At higher elevations in Guatemala, the resting flocks of waxwings are often joined by a group of silky flycatchers (Ptilogonys cinereus), which usually choose the topmost twigs as their perches. Of all the resident birds of the country, these gray, slender, restless creatures are the waxwings' nearest--although still distant--relations; and the birds themselves seem to recognize the fact!
"While many migrants, once they have reached their winter
range, appear to become as sedentary as the local birds, the cedar
waxwing is inveterately a wanderer, rarely remaining long in one
locality, but suddenly appearing, lingering a few days or a week
or two, then roaming away again. These movements bring them into
the most varied sorts of country: heavy forests of the upper
levels of the Tropical Zone as well as the pine and oak woods of
the highlands, arid as well as humid districts. They are as fond
of berries in their winter as in their summer home."
Cedar Waxwing* Bombycilla cedrorum
*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1950. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 197: 79-102. United States Government Printing Office