Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Waxwings
Nature Bulletin No. 656   November 18, 1961 
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

A Cedar Waxwing, with its jaunty crest and satiny soft-colored plumage, is as sleek and elegant a bird as you ever will see. The fawn hues on its neck and chest shade into yellowish flanks, a warm brown back, and grayish blue on the wings and tail. A little larger than a bluebird, its crest, black mask across the eyes, black chin, and yellow band at the end of the tail are conspicuous and distinctive. The name "waxwing" comes from something not found in any other family of birds. Usually, on the tips of the inner wing feathers of both males and females, there are shiny red appendages like blobs of sealing wax. Nobody knows why, nor why they sometimes occur also at the tips of the tail feathers.

In summer, cedar waxwings consume great numbers of small moths, cankerworms, leaf-eating beetles and potato beetles. Most of the year they are primarily fruit eaters that gorge themselves with the little blue berries on cedars and junipers, black cherries and choke cherries, blueberries and blackberries, wild grapes, the berries on Virginia creeper and poison ivy, those on honeysuckle, buckthorn and dogwood bushes, and the fruits of alder, hawthorn, mulberry, hackberry and mountain ash trees. "Cedar bird" and "cherry bird" are common names for the waxwing.

They breed in southern Canada from Quebec to British Columbia, and in the United States as far south as Georgia, Arkansas and New Mexico. A few are summer residents in the Chicago region, nesting regularly at Morton Arboretum and, this year, near the Little Red Schoolhouse nature center.

Cedar waxwings nest later than most birds, from 6 to 35 feet up in the horizontal branches of trees and shrubs. They seem to avoid dense forests and prefer orchards, isolated trees in open areas, and trees around swamps. The bulky untidy nest, built with twigs, roots, shreds of bark, and rags or strong, is lined with fine rootlets and grass or hair. From 4 to 6 pale blue or green eggs with dark spots are laid. The young are fed fruit and insects swallowed and then regurgitated by the parents. Until adult they are heavily streaked underneath.

Cedar waxwings do not sing. One of our naturalists said that the only sounds they make -- a high hissing note, or a lisping "zeeee" -- are like the whistle on a peanut roaster. During winter, flocks of as many as 100 are commonly seen here, especially at Morton Arboretum where there is an abundance of fruit-bearing shrubs and trees. Such flocks frequently, as if by command, stop and alight upon a certain tree which they also leave in unison.

They have another peculiar custom described by the celebrated ornithologist, Thomas Sadler Roberts: "When resting, the members of a flock are apt to sit closely snuggled together in a row, and at times may touch bills with their neighbors, first on one side, then on the other, in a manner suggesting kissing. Even more surprising, they may be seen to pass some tidbit, a ripe berry most likely, from one to another all along the line and then back again several times in succession without any bird being impolite enough to eat it..

The Bohemian Waxwing nests in Canada, Alaska, and northern regions of Asia and Europe. It resembles the cedar waxwing but is larger and has a white patch and yellow edging on the wings, gray flanks, and reddish brown instead of the name "Bohemian." It is an uncommon visitor in the Chicago region but, occasionally, enormous flocks invade one or more regions of the United States. In 1917, more than 10,000 visited Denver.

That's a lot of Bohemians!

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