The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Cedar Waxwings are Regular Spring Migrants in South Texas
by Ro Wauer

Every year in early spring, when spring flowers are starting to appear and the first of the northbound migrants are being reported in South Texas, flocks of cedar waxwings appear. Some of these lovely songbirds are surely neotropical migrants, wintering in the Tropics, but others may have remained north of the border. Now they are gathering in larger flocks and feeding on last year’s berries and new buds that are developing on our trees and shrubs. Mulberry, cedar, mountain ash, and pyracantha berries are favorites. Choice feeding sites often become staging areas for gathering flocks of migrants.

Cedar waxwings are one of our best known birds. They are easily recognized by their size (7-8 inches long), distinct, pointed topknot, black mask against a soft brown head, pale yellow belly, and a bright yellow tip on their otherwise gray and black tail. And their soft, high-pitched, slightly trilled whistle also is distinct. A wheeling flock of cedar waxwings, flying in unison, can hardly be mistaken.

Waxwings are truly a social species. These gregarious creatures rarely are alone, but flocks of a few to 100 or more are typical. Even on their nesting grounds, only in the Texas Panhandle and northward, many individuals will share common feeding areas. Although fruit and buds are utilized most often in South Texas, they also will feed on a wide variety of insects, oftentimes taken in mid-air, like a swallow or flycatcher. They may even alight on the ground to feed, and they also come to the ground to drink. I have often found a ring of eight to ten individuals on my birdbath. Like American robins, waxwings seem to drink a great deal of water.

They also possess some rather unusual habits. Harry Oberholser in his classic book, “The Bird Life of Texas,” tells about a “charming ritual” in which a pair or group of cedar waxwings, sitting together side-by-side on a branch, will “pass a cherry back and forth before one swallows it,” or, in courtship, a pair may pass flower petals or insects back and forth.

But it is their gregarious feeding habits that are best known. Hundreds of waxwings, that descend upon a tree or shrub filled with berries or buds, can strip the food in a few minutes. And in spite of their normally quiet and dignified manner, they can become avian clowns after feeding on fermented berries. There are numerous reports of drunken waxwings falling off branches and hanging upside down while attempting to right themselves. They may fall to the ground and put on a grand show of attempting to stand upright, teetering about or running in circles. But eventually they recover and continue their journey toward their breeding grounds.

In South Texas, we normally can enjoy these lovely creatures only during spring.

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