BIRD WATCH: Welcome waxwings unique in both voice, appearance

THE SOUND COMING from somewhere on the outside of the house was one homeowners never want to hear.

Was a woodpecker poking about on the roof or even on the walls? I was on the second floor and it sounded close — like right outside the window.

A flicker was working on a part of the roof over a downstairs window. My abrupt appearance sent it flying to another part of the yard. Its hammering that caught my attention proved to be good luck.

One of my favorite birds was perched in the flowering crabapple tree near the window. This is the time of the year to look for cedar waxwings, and the busy flock got my day off to a happy start.

Waxwings, both the cedar and its cousin, the Bohemian waxwing, are beautiful.

Describing them is challenging. Their overall color is a silky gray with reddish-brown mingling in their head and neck area. The crest on their head is soft and swept back. A bold black mask covers their eyes and forehead not unlike Zorro’s mask.

Their dark tail feathers are bordered in yellow and their dark wings are tipped with red feathers. These resemble droplets of red wax and account for part of the bird’s name.

It isn’t just their good looks that make waxwings special; they have unique personalities and are gregarious not only among themselves but even toward humans.

They can be seen throughout the state for most of the year. I associate them with late summer and fall. This can be attributed to their diet preferences. Waxwings are found where their food is in good supply.

They’re like the robins in that both species are omnivorous. They eat large amounts of fruit and berries in addition to flying insects. These are wonderful birds to have around when an outbreak of harmful bugs occurs. These are the birds to have around when those late summer flying termites begin showing up.

The crabapple tree that has tempted these birds for decades produces one of the largest crops of small berry-like apples I’ve ever seen. It’s an ancient tree, but it’s covered with thousands of berries every fall and winter.

Most of the time, the robins raid this tree. When one of their large flocks appears, they can strip it in a few days.

This year, the robins and the waxwings have fed periodically and only eat what appears to be ripe. They haven’t even started on the mountain ash. In addition to these two trees, waxwings go after the berries on the Pacific madrona trees and the Western red cedars. They love wild blackberries.

Another characteristic that enhances this bird’s personality is its voice. When a flock descends on the yard, they communicate nonstop. One writer described the sound they make as “sub-sibilant.” I’ve always thought of it as a soft whispering sound. It’s also high-pitched with a ringing quality.

A flock will land in a tree and the area vibrates with their mingling calls.

During August, there will be large numbers of this year’s young mixed in with the adults. They are slender-looking and their plumage is an overall bluish-gray. They remind me of a group of school-age children who are very excited about the journey they are enjoying. Their parents are showing them the world and introducing them to other flocks they will winter with.

Keep an eye on any fruit-bearing trees or bushes in your area or wherever your fall travels take you. Chances are excellent you, too, will get a chance to enjoy this very beautiful, even mysterious, bird.


Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email: [email protected].

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