Mission: To promote the appreciation of wildlife and increase harmony between humanity and nature.

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Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Waxwing Tale

Last week, while paddling into the mouth of Ravenna Creek, I noticed a few shadowy shapes darting between the tree tops. Their stop-and-go maneuvers indicated they were catching tiny insects which were invisible to me. I soon realized that the trees were filled with cedar waxwings. I paddled north and left the kayak. Circling around on foot I ended up with the sun at my back and a fluttering flock of avian delight in front of me. 

It turned out the insects were simply a side dish. The waxwings were far more focused on fruit. There were so many, so close together they could have inspired the saying, "Birds of a feather stick together."

The waxwings were varying their diet further by shifting back and forth between trees with red and yellow fruit.

Juveniles waxwings lose their chest stripes as they mature. 

Apparently, it also takes time to grow their stylish little top knots that stick out behind their heads.

The most obvious sign of an adult is the uniform light brown chest that subtly shifts to yellow. Watching adults provide guidance to their youth can also be indicative of their maturity.

Occasionally, young birds have to be taught the proper proximity. For instance, an accidental wing in the face will definitely inspire a teachable moment.

Some of the yellow berries did seem to be getting a bit past their prime.

This bird is looking towards the more plentiful red berries. Colorful berries contain carotenoids which provide the red and yellow pigments that add the most vibrant colors to a waxwing's feathers.

This photo, taken just before breeding season, shows the red waxy tips of the secondary wing feathers. These provide the inspiration for the name, waxwing. It may be that the birds with the brightest red wing tips are the ones which will be the healthiest mates.

When the bird in the earlier photo turns to face the red fruit tree, he reveals the state of his rectrices or tail feathers. Rectrices derives from Latin, like the word rector which is a leader in a church or university.

This makes sense because tail feathers help to guide and control birds in flight.

Looking more closely at the waxwing's tail, we see a staggered growth process. The yellow feather tips highlight the different lengths of the tail feathers. If the bird lost all of its tail feathers at once it would be difficult to change direction while flying. By replacing the feathers a few at a time, the bird is never out of control.

In this example, we see why the new feathers are needed. The yellow tip of the older feather on the left has completely worn away. You can also see the faint beginnings of the red waxy wing tips. During the next few months the waxwings will completely replace their feathers so they can be ready for the rites of spring.

Suddenly, the waxwings took to the air en masse. It was time to head back to the kayak. As I paddled away I took one last hopeful look at the fruit trees. A shadowy figure hidden among the lower branches had the size, shape and long tail of a cooper's hawk. Like a light going on in the dark, I realized what inspired the mass exit. 

I found I was both happy for the waxwings and sad for the hawk. It reminded me that nature requires a balance. I hope we are able to balance our desires with the needs of the natural world.

Danny Westneat's column in today's Seattle Times provides an example of how Senator Henry Jackson inspired Congress to balance our needs with nature. Sadly, congress needs to be inspired once more. Below are links to our current Senators. I hope you will let them know we need to continue what Senator Jackson began.

For Danny's Column - Click Here

To email Senator Cantwell - Click Here

To email Senator Murray - Click Here

Please feel free to forward a link to this column to others who may share our sentiments.

Have a great day on Union Bay...in the city we share with the waxwings!



  1. Those are achingly beautiful close-ups of a bird I love, the Cedar Waxwing. You made me laugh with the teachable moment -- an accidental wing in the face. Love that image you caught of the bird approaching to land with wings and tail fanned out. Those aren't easy pictures to get.

    1. Dan, Thank you! Talking about the teachable moment, it is amazing to me that birds and humans can be separated by three hundred million years of evolution and still have so much in common. All the way from raising young to our physical similarities. The major bones in their wings are even still similar to bones in our arms and hands.
      All the best!

  2. What tree do you think these birds are feeding on? Oregon Ash?

    1. According to the book "Northwest Trees" by Arno and Hammerly the Oregon Ash has a "fruit" that is similar to a single winged seed from a maple tree. My photos do not focus on the tree so I don't yet have enough information to figure out what tree it is. I will look into it and get back to you. :-)

    2. You are always a notable teacher. Thank you.


    3. Judy,
      Thank you! By the way I checked the trees this morning and my best guess is they are some sort of Crab/Apple trees. (Especially the trees in the first 6 photos above.) The seventh photo is of a European Ash the telltale give away is that the leaflets are symmetrically opposed, along with the orange fruits. It turns out there are many different varieties of crab/apples so I am at a bit of a loss as to which one(s) these two trees might be. It is always fun to learn. Thank you for following along!