Bird of a Feather...


Sound asleep at the base of Tuckerman’s Ravine at one of the Hermit Lake Shelters, a camper awoke to a high-pitched sound. The camper mistook the sound for the chirping of a chipmunk as she scanned the trees for the sound’s source. Perched proudly in the upper branches of a tree, the camper spotted a masked bird with a small crown of feathers decorating the back of its head. The bird sang its song again and the camper felt satisfied for having identified her boreal forest alarm clock.

Many people in the White Mountains have heard the high-pitched, buzzy trill that this bird produces. In combination with its smooth, brownish-grey plumage, and the red waxy ends of its flight feathers, one can distinguish the bird as the Cedar Waxwing.

Cedar Waxwings are members of the bird order Passeriformes, whose birds may be called Passerines. Passerines are sometimes known as “perching birds,” or more vaguely, “songbirds.” Many birds in this order have highly developed muscles to control their primary voice organ. One special adaptation of birds in the order Passeriformes is the arrangement of their toes, called the anisodactyl arrangement. In this arrangement, three toes on the foot are directed forward and one toe is directed backwards. This toe positioning enables passerines to perch on vertical surfaces, such as trees and cliffs.
Outside of the typical passerine characteristics, Cedar Waxings possess characteristics that make them unique and fun to observe. Their coloration is one of their defining features. The red, waxy-looking wing tips that are droplet-shaped give the Cedar Waxwing its name, and are the result the of the Cedar Waxwing’s berry-heavy diet. The droplets’ color is not synthesized directly by the bird; the color comes from carotenoid pigments that are in the berries and fruit eaten by the bird. Deposits of carotenoid develop and become concentrated in flat extensions of feather vanes in the secondary flight feathers. Young waxwings have zero or few red droplets. Over time as the bird eats, grows, and molts, the droplets increase in size and number. Pigmentation can also be seen on the tip of the Cedar Waxwing’s tail, either in yellow or orange. The bird’s diet affects the coloration of the tail.

Cedar Waxwing’s diet also affects the time of their breeding season. Mid-summer ripening of fruit triggers the waxwing’s breeding season to start, as their summer, fall, winter, and spring diet mainly consists of fruit. The fruit of viburnums, dogwoods, pokeweed, grape, mountain ash, apples, hawthorn, and juniper plants are important and common favorites of the waxwing. When fruit is less available, waxwings eat buds, sap, and flowers from apple, cherry, aspen, maple, and oak trees. Insects are also a principal component of the waxwing’s summer diet. When winter approaches, Cedar Waxwings tend to migrate southward in flocks in search of more prevalent food sources.

Right now in the White Mountains, Cedar Waxwings are heard and seen in flocks in and around trees. They are social birds who travel together to food sources and can be seen passing a berry down a line of waxwings on a branch until one hungry bird eats it. Their activeness is a sign of a summer rich in fruit and growth, and of the approaching fall season.

Interested in learning more about birds in the White Mountains? Join a Naturalist Guide at the AMC’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center for a guided walk or hike. Call ahead (603-466-2721) for program times and details. Have a natural history question that you would like answered in this blog? Send out an e-mail to amcpnvcnat@outdoors.org.

M. Murphy
AMC Naturalist

Sources for this Blog:
The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior
The Audobon Society of Encyclopedia of North American Birds