Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Cedars and Waxwings

Have you ever wondered how waxwings got their name? Two waxwings are found in our area - the common cedar waxwing and the occasional Bohemian waxwing - the Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers a nice visual comparison here (scroll down to "field marks" and click on the picture of the cedar waxwing).

Both species are plump with a long crest, short bill, silky plumage, and yellow band across the tip of the short tail. Waxwings are named for the "waxy" secretions at the tips of modified secondaries. The shaft (or rachis) of these wing feathers have flattened extensions that contain a dense concentration of red pigment.

Waxwings feed almost entirely on sugary fruits. They fly about in flocks in search of berries, stopping in open woods, at field and wetland edges, among ornamental plantings, and under powerline corridors. When young waxwings eat lots of berries from exotic honeysuckle bushes, a reddish pigment forms in the tail band, turning it orange. The appearance of waxwings is clearly intertwined with their diet.

The other part of the cedar waxwing's name comes from its fondness for Eastern red cedar fruits -- waxy bluish fruits that are often covered in white powder. The Eastern red cedar, Juniperus virginiana, is really a juniper and not a cedar. The new leaves of red cedar are pointed and prickly, while the older leaves or needles are short, scaly, and blunt.

The scale-like older leaves of Eastern red cedar

Eastern red cedar grows as a small tree, most notably in abandoned farm fields and pastures. A line of red cedars seen along a field edge or row of fence posts shows how the tree spreads through bird droppings.

A row of Eastern red cedar along a stone wall and field edge

Bluebirds, robins, mockingbirds, among many other birds relish the fruits of this juniper. White-tailed deer browse on the lower branches, leaving a noticeable "browse line," and exposing the grayish brown bark that shreds in long strips. The rot resistant wood is used as fence posts and cedar chests -- the aromatic wood deters moths from eating holes into winter woolens. The heartwood (inner wood) was once the sole source of material for many pencils.

If you come across an Eastern red cedar in the forest, you will know it started growing when the site was still a field, as they do not germinate in shade. If you are near cedars in fields or field edges in the fall or winter, listen for a high-pitched, short, thin whistle and look for a flock of birds, and you are sure to see the beautiful waxwings gorging on red cedar berries.

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