Colours of Wildlife - Cedar Waxwing

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Cedar Waxwing

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Cedar waxwing by Willem.

Another bird from outside South Africa … this time one all the way from America! The Cedar Waxwing, Bombycilla cedrorum, in fact lives in Canada as well as the USA (and winters as far south as Central and northwestern South America). For this painting I used as reference, with permission, a photo from Les Piccolo which you can see here. Please take some time to look at Les' gallery … us artists are very indebted to wildlife photographers!

These pretty little birds owe their common name to a very unusual feature of their secondary wing feathers. The tip of each feather is extended into a teardrop-shaped knob that is bright red and shiny, resembling sealing wax! You can see these waxy feather extensions on the folded wing in my painting. So far these seem to have no function other than the decorative. The rest of the waxwing's plumage is soft, sleek and silky. The scientific name Bombycilla is supposed to mean 'silky tail', but the namer, Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot, botched the Latin, so it actually comes out meaning something like 'little silk thingy'. There are three known waxwings: the Cedar, the Bohemian, Bombycilla garrulus, and the Japanese, Bombycilla japonica. The Japanese species lacks the red wax-tips, but in other respects the three species are very similar in appearance. In all waxwing species, the sexes are similar as well. They are currently understood to be distantly related to other songbirds and are put in a family of their own. The silky flycatchers and the Hypocolius are sometimes considered close relatives and included.

Berry-Sharing Birds

As you might gather from a careful study of my painting, waxwings eat berries! The cedar waxwing seems to be especially fond of the berries of the Eastern Redcedar … which is actually a species of juniper, and the 'berries' are actually small, modified cones since junipers are indeed coniferous trees. They swallow these whole. All three species of waxwing are associated with the coniferous forests of the far north, where they breed. They will also feed on berries of other trees and shrubs such as dogwood and hawthorn. When insects are available they will catch them, these being especially important for feeding their chicks. A very charming aspect of their feeding behavior is the way they share! When there's a bunch of berries at the tip of a twig, and an entire flock of waxwings who want to eat them, they will all perch on the twig in a line. The waxwing that is at the front will pick the berries from the twig's tip and then pass them on, and they get passed along the line to the ones in the back, so that all can have some!

Another very interesting diet-related feature is the colour of the waxwing's tail tip. Birds that eat the traditional berry diet have yellow tips to the tail feathers. But in some regions of America, honeysuckle plants have been introduced from Europe. Waxwings that eat a lot of the berries of these honeysuckles get orange tail tips! So, those with rebellious, newfangled dietary habits can actually be visually identified. Lastly, waxwings sometimes feed on over-ripe fruit that had started to ferment, and can become intoxicated! This is much easier to manage for a small bird than for large mammals such as elephants that have been (falsely!) claimed to get drunk from eating fermented Marula fruit.

Flocking Together

Cedar waxwings are very social birds, occurring in flocks throughout the year. Flock members will groom each other to maintain bonds. During the breeding season they don't stake out territories, but merely defend the immediate vicinity of their nests. Because of this non-territoriality they don't have elaborate songs like other songbirds, instead just uttering simple whistles or trills while foraging or in flight. Their courtship rituals are also simple. The male dances for the female with hopping motions; if she is interested she will hop for him in turn! They will also sit and pass berries, flowers or insects back and forth to each other. Once mated they will display affection by rubbing their bills together. They breed in southern Canada and the northern USA in the spring and summer, a time when lots of berries and insects can be found. Their nests are untidy cups of twigs, grasses and lichens, in which the female lays 5 or 6 eggs. The female incubates alone, but both sexes feed the chicks when they hatch. The chicks leave the nest after two to two-and-a-half weeks and waxwing pairs may raise two broods in a season.

When winter comes, waxwings, like many other birds of the far north, head south to warmer climes! This is not the typical migration where there is a fast and direct flight to a specific wintering ground, instead being just a general southward movement keeping pace with warmth and food ability. In these times they can group into much larger flocks. Waxwings have comparatively long, pointed wings, and are strong, fast flyers, making these movements easy. While their haunts in the north are mainly coniferous forests, in the south they will inhabit a diversity of habitats, to long as fruiting trees and bushes can be found. They will occasionally enter town parks and suburban gardens. They always prefer to have easy access to clean water for drinking and bathing, and the sound of running water attracts them – not just natural creeks and streams but also human water features like fountains. In years when food is sparse, they will fly beyond their usual range. Some vagrants are occasionally seen in Europe. The Bohemian Waxwing, which also occurs in the USA, will sometimes join in with flocks of cedar waxwings.

A final interesting factoid: a waxwing is mentioned in poem in Vladimir Nabokov's novel 'Pale Fire'. It is a fictional waxwing species that is named after a fictional poet in the story. So I'm not the only one who's been inventing fictional species for stories!

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