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Biodiversity Blog

 

CAMPUS BIODIVERSITY: Cedar Waxwings, the Beautiful Visitors.

 cedarbird
 photo by Jacob McGinnis

Our campus is home to lots of different birds that are impossible to miss: an inky black grackle flying dangerously close overhead, a chubby pigeon picking at a crust of pizza. But with winter upon UT, we also have another visitor: the Cedar Waxwings. These are strikingly beautiful birds that are less obvious than our normal bird residents, and they are only here for a short time.

The scientific name of this bird is Bombycilla cedrorum. The name comes from “bombax,” Ancient Greek for “silk,” and “cilla,” modern Latin for tail. They get their common name "Cedar Waxwings" from cedar berries, one of the many types of berries they eat, as well as the cluster of red on the tips of the secondary flight feathers that make them appear dipped in wax.

These birds are native to North and Central America. Their breeding grounds are in southern Canada and they winter in the southern US, Central America, and the far northwest of South America.

Because of our ample winter fruit supply, Central Texas is a fabulous place for the birds to stay a while. Winter “fruit” in this case not meaning oranges and grapefruits, but things one doesn’t find in the grocery store: china berries, and the berries of cedar, mistletoe, hawthorn, honeysuckle and pyracantha. They have a particular affinity for yaupon berries. It’s also not uncommon for them to gorge on fermenting berries and get a little intoxicated. Unable to coordinate flight movement or walk very well, these drunk birds fly into windows and cars. Drunk Cedar Waxwings caused enough of a hassle one season in Minnesota that their Animal Health Unit set up “drunk tanks” (modified hamster cages) to isolate the birds and give them time to sober up.

Their diet will also affect other aspects of the birds, but with less ramifications. The color of their tails can range from yellow to orange depending on what they eat. Honeysuckle berries in their meals make the tail a darker orange, a perfect way to show some UT spirit.

Cedar waxwing Courtship 
 Courting birds. (Photo by Minette Layne)

Cedar Waxwings are cooperative and social creatures, acting “charming” as described by late ornithologist Harry Oberholser. When a tree twig is full of berries but can only bear the weight of a few birds, the flock will line up and pass berries to each other so they may all eat. During mating, a couple in courtship will pass berries, in addition to insects or flower petals, back and forth to each other. Mating pairs also rub beaks, a sign of affection, and males will do a hopping dance for his mate. The female reciprocates and hops back, but only if she’s interested in her suitor.

So the next time you are out on campus, look to treetops for these remarkable birds, or listen for their high-pitched distinct call (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Cedar_Waxwing/sounds). If you hear it, there is a flock nearby, but as spring approaches, they won’t be here much longer as they continue their northward move.

SOURCES:

"All About Birds." Cedar Waxwing, Life History. Cornell Lab of Ornithology. June 24, 2013. (accessed online: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Cedar_Waxwing/id)

Cedar Waxwing. The Texas Breeding Bird Atlas. Texas A&M Agrilife Extension (accessed online: https://txtbba.tamu.edu/species-accounts/cedar-waxwing/)

Held, Amy. “Minnesota Residents Call Police on Rowdy Drunk Birds.” National Public Radio. October 4, 2018. (accessed online: https://www.npr.org/2018/10/04/654489250/minnesota-residents-call-police-on-rowdy-drunk-birds)

Jurica, Jenny Webster. “The Cedar Waxwing: A Show-Stopper with an Affinity for Native Texas Berries.” January 2, 2018. (accessed online: https://texashillcountry.com/cedar-waxwing-native-texas-berries/)

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