Last week I got an earful.
It was not for any wrongdoing on my part; rather, it was an earful of wax (not to be gross) wings. A group or flock of these birds is called an earful or a museum of waxwings. It is now common to see groups as large as 100 of these birds in the fields and forests of the Island.
Cedar waxwings are the masked marauders of the bird world. Batman (or Catwoman) would immediately bond with these birds, which also sport a sleek black face-mask edged in white. And with its slicked-back crest atop its head, the suave cedar waxwing would also fit in with the greaser crowd.
Two other field marks identify this beautiful gray bird of tree and trail. Look for the yellow tip on its tail and a red dot on its secondary feathers.
Don’t think that you are colorblind or crazy if you see orange instead of yellow on the tip of the tail. Orange-tailed cedar waxwings have been observed since around 1960. Those unusual birds can blame or thank an introduced species of honeysuckle for their tail travail. If a waxwing eats the berries of Morrow’s honeysuckle while it is growing its tail feathers, the color of the tip of its tail will be orange instead of the usual yellow.
The other field mark gave rise to this bird’s name. This bird’s surname is waxwing because the small red spot on its mid-wings resemble the wax seal from an envelope. This red is thought to signal its mate and to call others to flock to the presence of berries, the waxwing’s favorite food. The other part of its name comes from its partiality to the fruits of the red cedar tree. Henry David Thoreau, however, called them cherry birds for their penchant to consume that fruit.)
The cedar waxwing is my kind of bird, a frugivore, since it eats fruit and lots of it. I too love fruit, but even if I wanted to, could not survive on fruit alone for several months the way a waxwing does. Over its lifetime, this bird consumes a diet that consists of up to 80 per cent fruit. The other 20 per cent of its meals is made up of insects and other plant parts, including flower petals and nectarous liquids.
Cedar waxwings like fruit so much that they can’t help themselves from eating it. They actually binge on it and can get drunk and even die if they consume too much of the fermented fruit. To attract waxwings to a feeder, put out (nonfermented) raisins, currants, or even apples to satisfy their cravings.
Don’t worry about their fighting for the treats. They are not greedy; quite the contrary, they share well. Sometimes you can see a string of them sitting in a line on a twig or branch. The bird nearest to the fruit will pick it and pass it down the line, believe it or not. This is similar to the behavior of breeding cedar waxwings: in the summer, when they are wooing, the female and male sit together and pass small objects back and forth to entice each other. Their nuptial gifts can include berries, insects or flower petals.
There are those who don’t admire the cedar waxwings. Predators include hawks, grackles and bullfrogs. Bluejays will predate nestlings and house wrens can eat their eggs. Perhaps their biggest foes were fruit growers in Vermont in the early 20th century. In 1908, these farmers introduced a bill that would allow them to shoot cedar waxwings. While this bill passed in the House, it didn’t fly in the Senate, so it never became law.
Which is just as well. If, as the book says, it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, then it would also be an offense to attack this generous bird. And since greed too is a sin, fruit growers could share a bit of their bounty — a lesson that the waxwings have already learned.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.