WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
“With thin, lisping cries, flocks of Cedar Waxwings descend on berry-laden trees and hedges, to flutter among the branches as they feast.” Lives of North American Birds (Kaufman, 1996)
Nature’s way is rich with memorable moments of wildness. Some of these moments brighten the spirit and remind us that nature has predictable patterns. Sometimes, we have to search for those moments, but other times we just stumble upon them and are left in awe and feel like celebrating. The latter happened to me in the first week of June, along a trail I know well.
I noticed a flurry of wings in the upper branches of an apple tree. A closer look in the dawn’s early light revealed a flock of about a dozen Cedar Waxwings feasting on the tree’s pale-pink flower petals. They appeared to be a rather gregarious gathering with obvious sharing of petals occurring. I witnessed a few petals being passed beak to beak before they were consumed. This was a behavioral pattern I had read about in relation to Cedar Waxwings feeding on berries but had never witnessed. Being so caught up in the moment, I forgot to activate the camera’s video to document the sharing. However, I quickly captured a few still images of their petal consumption. That memorable moment led to my increased appreciation of the Cedar Waxwings in our midst.
Cedar Waxwings are one of the most eye-catching birds that grace our county, with fine-tuned behavioral patterns to match seasonal changes and available food. They are also one of our latest nesting birds which enables them to feast on the abundance of fruits that appear in the early days of summer. Summer is their breeding season, but even with all my wanderings, I have yet to ever find the nest of a Cedar Waxwing. Their nests are usually situated on a woodland edge zone, in old orchards and especially along wide-open trails and riversides, locations where the abundance of light ensures bountiful berry crops.
Egg-laying typically begins in June and sometimes continues until September, with June, July, and August ensuring ample berry supplies for these fruit-eating birds. However, their hatchlings are primarily fed insects for their first few days of life, but then the parents gradually increase the ratio of fruits to bugs as they rapidly grow. The season of consuming flower petals on fruit trees is long over. Cedar Waxwings are now hunting for ripening wild fruits, especially black raspberries and wild and cultivated grapes. Strawberries, mulberries, wild cherries, and ornamental berries that thrive in some suburban and urban gardens are also part of their early summer menu. When August arrives, Cedar Waxwings often feast on the juiciest blackberries, before humans have a chance to harvest them.
Although they are chiefly fruit-eaters, Cedar Waxwings are opportunists when it comes to insect hunting, a good source of protein. The fact of the matter is clear; the very lifestyle of these beautiful birds is intrinsically connected to their specialized, but often varying diet. As summer progresses, the fruits of autumn olive, hawthorn, pokeweed, and crab apples are added to the menu, along with an increasing variety of insects, including caterpillars, dragonflies, beetles, and even ants. When and where a flock of these berry-eating beauties is seen descending upon a tree or shrub usually depends on the ripeness of the fruit. Witnessing such an event creates a memory that won’t soon be forgotten. Find the fruits, and you just might find the birds.
On occasion, especially in late summer or early autumn, nature centers receive calls about flocks of Cedar Waxwings flopping around under fruit trees “acting strangely.” Sometimes they are reported as behaving like they are drunk. The fact of the matter is that Cedar Waxwings, like other fruit-eating birds, will sometimes overindulge in fermented fruits and become technically intoxicated. National Public Radio has reported on that phenomenon, including the day residents in a small Minnesota town called police to report rowdy behavior of flocks of Cedar Waxwings.
When summer days shorten, the consumption of insects decreases, and the hardy fruits of hawthorn, juniper, and cedar become more commonly consumed. Cedar cone seeds are one of their dominant winter foods on the wilder side of Oakland County, especially in lands managed by Oakland County Parks and Recreation, Huron-Clinton Metroparks, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and along the edge zones of the Paint Creek, Polly Ann, West Bloomfield, and Clinton River Trails.
I have been asked how Cedar Waxwings earned their unusual name. The first part is easy since Cedar Waxwings are often noted feeding in cedar trees. But the explanation for the word “waxwing” as part of their name is truly amazing and almost unbelievable. At first, I thought I misheard what I was told by an avid birder. A bit of fact-checking and a post by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology confirmed what I was told and references the brilliant red marking on the tips of some of the secondary feathers of their wings. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology explains those eye-catching red streaks this way, “The name “waxwing” comes from the waxy red secretions found on the tips of the secondaries of some birds. The exact function of these tips is not known, but they may help attract mates.” Cool Green Science explains the brilliant red waxwing secretion in far more depth in their lively blog.
That discovery led me to dig deeper into the coloration of the Cedar Waxwings and another finding. The Cedar Waxwings I photographed all had bright-yellow feathers on the tips of their tails. However, some Cedar Waxwings have orange tail tips instead of yellow, a sign that they have been feeding heavily on non-native honeysuckle fruit during their molt, the time when old feathers are replaced with new ones.
With its variety of habitats and easy-to-navigate trails, 1,140-acre Orion Oaks County Park is a great place for any early-morning birding or just a nature-embracing walk. Once the frosty days of autumn arrive, I will return to Orion Oaks where eastern red cedars in a meadow lure in flocks of Cedar Waxwings, shortly after sunrise illuminates Lake Sixteen.
For winter Cedar Waxwing watching, I have a special place I discovered last winter: the Van Tassel Pedestrian Bridge. That beautiful new footbridge is adjacent to Clarkston Road and connects the Paint Creek Trail with the Polly Ann Trail. It’s a perfect location of peaceful solitude to look for our highly adaptable Cedar Waxwings. They perch on branches near the bridge, feed on dried berries, and perhaps dream of next spring’s tender apple blossom petals.
Jonathan Schechter is the nature education writer for Oakland County Government and blogs about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.