Also known as Southern Waxwing, Canada Robin, Cedar Bird, Cherry Bird or Recellet, the Cedar Waxwing’s Latin name literally means ‘Silk-tail of the Cedars’. Waxwings were once known as Silk-tails in honor of their soft, smooth, silky plumage, and they were paid the dubious complement of being skinned and inserted into women’s hats on an industrial scale during the feather fashion of the nineteenth century. The modern name ‘Waxwing’ was not used until 1817, somewhat surprisingly late in the day, given that those strange red markings on the bird’s wing really do resemble the droplets of hot wax used to seal envelopes.
Waxwings belong to the family Bombycillidae, a rather heterogeneous group of eight beautiful species, including the four silky flycatchers of Central America as well as the all-black Phainopepla which extends its range into the south-western USA as far as northern California. There are three species of waxwing worldwide, the other two being the Bohemian Waxwing of Europe and the Japanese waxwing, which is currently on the red list of endangered species.
Waxwings are truly stunning birds. Recently we came across a flock on the edges of a mixed woodland at
Fort Hill, Truro, Cape Cod. The sun was shining full on them as they roamed from tree to tree. There were around a dozen birds of mixed ages, including this year’s young, and looking up at them I was struck by just how handsome, smart and elegant they are. I came across the following description of them recently: ‘The subtlety of waxwing beauty – something of the formal smartness and finishing touches of male military costume, such as pips, epaulets and prominent headgear’. But that doesn’t quite capture it either. There’s something about that black eye stripe edged with white, the beautiful silky crest, the square cut tail edged in bright yellow and the warm brown, taupe and gray upperparts, subtly contrasted with pale yellow underparts makes it, to me, the most handsome of all birds. The sunshine brings those colors out in a startling way.
Add to this the absolute charm of their continuous soft, silvery, faintly rippling calls which almost have a conversational quality, but which you have to strain your ears and concentrate to truly appreciate, and you complete the picture of one of our most charismatic birds. Incidentally the French name for the Waxwing – jaseur – has acquired a secondary sense of someone who gossips or chats incessantly.
Waxwings are frugivores almost without equal. They will eat their own body weight in fruit each day. They will eat it until they can eat no more and are fit to burst, or are unable to fly. They will eat it even when it is fermented and they became stone drunk in the process. Mark Cocker in “Birds and People’ describes how he and a friend came across a flock of waxwings that were so drunk they were unable to fly.
They are also highly sociable birds and are almost always seen in flocks. It is reported that when the end of a twig holds a supply of berries that only one bird can reach at a time, members of the flock may line up along the twig and pass berries down the line so that each bird gets a chance to eat. What a charming picture that conjures up