Door To Nature: Waxwings

What a strange name for a bird species! How could a bird have wax on its wings and be able to fly? The name was given to this species because of wax-like red secretions on the ends of their secondary wing feathers.

Cedar waxwings return to Wisconsin each spring to breed and raise their young. Some winters we will find Bohemian waxwings visiting from the far north. Roy was fond of both, but especially the Bohemian, because that was his ethnic background. His ancestors came from Bohemia, the western part of what is now the Czech Republic. 

Most of our cedar waxwings migrate in fall to the southern half of the country. They breed all across the northern half of the U.S. and into southern Canada. Occasionally a few will remain here as long as wild berries are available.

It is one of the few species that can subsist mainly on a diet of fruit. In fact, when a brown-headed cowbird deposits an egg in a waxwing nest, the baby usually cannot survive on a fruit-only diet, and dies. Most baby birds need to eat a good supply of insects for the first few months, mainly for the protein.

The waxwings do eat some insects. It’s fun to watch them fly up and snatch an insect out of the air, almost like a flycatcher. Another name given to these birds here in Door County with all the orchards, is “cherrybirds.” They eat the commercially-grown cherries, but usually prefer the wild fruit.

In early summer the waxwings will consume Canada buffaloberry fruit. Then they move on to the “Juneberries,” also known as serviceberries. Even half-ripened fruit would be eaten.

Cedar waxwings have yellow on the ends of their tail feathers. It was learned, dating back about 60 years ago, that if fledgling waxwings consumed a heavy diet of non-native honeysuckle fruit, it would make the yellow on the tail become orange. This was due to a certain chemical in the berries.

One day in the summer of 1982, someone brought a cedar waxwing chick to us at the Ridges Rangelight residence. It had fallen out of the nest but the person couldn’t find the adults or the nest. The youngster was fairly well-feathered and was very hungry, begging for food.

It had a high-pitched squeaky voice, so that’s the name we gave it. Roy collected small red worms, insects and caterpillars to feed it. Cut up strawberries and bananas, along with wild pin cherries, seemed to satisfy Squeaky’s appetite as well.

Soon it was capable of taking short flights. We kept it in the kitchen for the first two days. When it started to fly more easily and began taking food from the end of a blunt toothpick, we moved it outside to the feeder area. Eventually we took it out to a woodland that had wild fruit trees and released it where we saw a flock of other cedar waxwings.

The Bohemian waxwing is one that we do not see as often. They may suddenly appear in large flocks where crabapple trees are heavy with fruit in some of our villages. A strong Canadian cold front sweeping in from the northwest is what moves them into our area.

Roy’s first sighting of these magnificent birds was on a Christmas bird count in 1958 while hiking in the Point Beach State Forest near Two Rivers, Wisconsin. I was introduced to them in March of 1973, when we heard a very “talkative” flock of about 40 birds just west of Kangaroo Lake.

Their scientific genus name is bombycilla, which comes from the Latin, bombyx, for silky. That’s what their feathers look like when seen from close. The species name of the Bohemian waxwings is garrulus. The root word, garrul, means chattering.

This species has more brilliant colors than the cedar waxwing. If you can see Bohemian waxwings from below you will notice the undertail feathers are a deep cinnamon color, and there is more color in the wings and on the face. They are downright beautiful birds.

One never knows when a flock may show up. They nest in Alaska and far northwestern Canada. Once the food supply in their breeding grounds is depleted, they will move down to the United States in search of fruit.

That’s why it is a good idea to plant native, fruit-bearing trees like serviceberry. These Bohemians may be found in flocks with lingering cedar waxwings and American robins.

The annual Christmas bird counts are coming up. The Sturgeon Bay count will be done on Saturday, Dec. 16 and the Brussels (southern Door) count will be on Sunday, Dec. 17.If you wish to count birds at your feeders, please contact Charlotte Lukes at [email protected] to receive instructions and a report form.