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Cedar Waxwings and Robins

The high pitched whistles of Cedar Waxwings give them away before you see them, and sometimes they are hiding in plain sight. 

Cedar Waxwings hiding in the top of an oak

Large flocks of Cedar Waxwings have been breezing through the lowcountry lately.  I rarely see these sweet birds alone, and for the last few weeks we’ve had bunches of them here on the island.  But I’ve seen them on the mainland regularly, in shopping parking lots and live oaks along the highway, and fighting over birdbath space in the unlikeliest of places.  Yesterday I walked under a tree where I hadn’t even noticed them, and startled the flock in a flurry of loud wingbeats as they took refuge in the top of a pine tree.  Camouflaged by the pine cones, the Cedar Waxwings blended right in!

cedar waxwings in pine

Cedar Waxwings are a medium sized bird that eats mostly fruit, and you can find them in the holly and cedar trees on the island with great regularity in the winter.  Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports that this is one species that specializes in many of the same habitats that work well with human habitation, and unlike many other species right now, numbers of Cedar Waxwings are actually increasing.  We generally see them in the winter, and in late spring they’ll migrate northward to nest.

waxwings in pine
waxwings in holly

Waxwings are named for the red “waxy” markings on the edges of their wing feathers. They also have a yellow stripe at the tips of their tail.  These pigments are created in part by the foods they are eating, and in some places where non-native honeysuckles are prevalent, their tailfeathers are much more orange.

cedar waxwing

They seem to hang out with Robins a lot.  Journey North accumulates data on monarch, hummingbirds and robins as they migrate.  You can learn more about that and submit observations here. Both are flocking species that eat fruit, and they seem to travel together in the winter a lot. 

Robins and Waxwings at a Birdbath in Mount Pleasant. Photo by S. Cantle

But robins have slightly higher personal space needs (they’ll keep more space between them) than waxwings, who can be seen sitting practically on top of each other on the same branch.  As the flocks approach nesting season, they’ll get more territorial and the flocks will break down into smaller and smaller groups.

Jane Yolen (who wrote one of my favorite books of all time, Owl Moon,) wrote this sweet poem about Waxwings as masked bandits. 

Waxwing with palmetto berries

And Robert Francis wrote this poem, which begins:

Four Tao philosophers as cedar waxwings
chat on a February berry bush
in sun, and I am one.

Such merriment and such sobriety—
the small wild fruit on the tall stalk—
was this not always my true style?

Cedar Waxwings in LIve Oak

This weekend is a great time to get outside and count some birds. In fact, a Cedar Waxwing was the headliner for this post about the GBBC in 2014. I’m happy for company birding~ let me know if you’d like to count with me.

Great Backyard Bird Count

The Great Backyard Bird Count returns for its 22nd year this coming weekend, February 14–17. Count birds anywhere in the world, and help scientists get a snapshot of global bird populations. In 2019, an estimated 225,000 people counted some 6,850 species—will you be part of this year’s count? 

Last fall, scientists reported a decline of more than one in four breeding birds in the United States and Canada since 1970, which makes keeping track of birds more important than ever. Join us for this year’s count!