On one of our morning walks, my wife Mary Alice, and I found a dead cedar waxwing laying on the sidewalk. It apparently had been killed by a vehicle.
The cedar waxwing - also known as the southern waxwing - is a very pretty bird that belongs to the waxwing family, with two members found in North America. Both can be found in Pennsylvania. The less common is the Bohemian waxwing, which also is known as the northern waxwing.
The cedar waxwing's scientific name is Bombycilla cedrorum. "Bombycillia" is a combined Latin and Greek word meaning "silky tailed."
The genus name "cedrorum" is Latin and means "of cedars." The name "wax winged" comes from the waxy red appendages at the tips of the birds' secondary wing feathers.
The waxwings have soft, silky drab plumage. Their bills are somewhat short, thick and slightly hooked. They have short legs and a prominent crest.
Their wings have bright red, drop-shaped, wax-like material on the secondary feathers; hence, the name. The reason or function of these waxy droplets, which are a prolongation of the feather shafts, are unknown.
The tail is yellow tipped, making the birds easy to identify. Although both sexes appear similar, one book states that most males have a black throat, while the female's throat is brown; however, this is only about 90 percent reliable.
Cedar waxwings live in small flocks throughout the year. During the winter months, they rove about the country, eating berries, especially the berries of the cedar trees and mountain ash, or rowan tree.
Their migration movement is not a north-south movement as many other birds but rather more of an east-west movement. Because of this nomadic movement, the birds can appear at any time of the year and more plentiful in some years than other years.
Flocks of birds often are seen sitting in a row on a limb, passing a berry or piece of fruit back and forth until it is swallowed by one of the birds. This behavior, which is repeated again and again, is the reason the cedar waxwings are known as very polite birds. Waxwings also eat the sap of maple trees and, during summer months, they feed upon insects.
Waxwings often nest in colonies. Their nests, which are made from twigs, grasses, mosses, lichens and pine needles, are built in deciduous and coniferous trees. On occasion, birds take nesting materials from other nests, especially that of the kingbird.
Although nesting begins in June, it can be as late as September. Incubation of three to five eggs is done entirely by the female in 12 to 16 days. At first, the young are fed insects but, within a few days, cherries and berries are added to their diet. The fruit is carried in the adult bird's throat.
The name of the Bohemian waxwing comes about because of the bird's unusual behavior. Although Bohemian waxwings are seen in Pennsylvania, they are a rare migrant and when seen they usually are feeding with flocks of cedar waxwings.
Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.