Brooklyn Boro

Brooklyn Bird Watch: February 2

Cedar Waxwing. Scientific Name: Bombycilla cedrorum.

February 2, 2022 By Joseph Palmer
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Today, Brooklyn Bird Watch features a Heather Wolf photo of the Cedar Waxwing perched in a holly tree in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Wikipedia tells us about its poetic sounding name: “The genus name Bomycilla comes from the Ancient Greek bombux, “silk” and the Modern Latin cilla, “tail”; this is a direct translation of the German Seidenschwanz, “silk-tail”, and refers to the silky-soft plumage, giving these birds a sleek looking body. The specific “cedrorum” is Latin for “of the cedars”.

The Cedar Waxwing breeds year round in New York. Cornell says that bird watchers get a jolt when they find one of these beautiful birds in the binoculars.  The Cedar Waxwing has silky looking plumage of brown, gray and lemon yellow, accented with a subdued crest and a slender, Zorro-like mask. They also, of course, have the brilliant red wax droplets on the secondary wing feathers. Something strange is that apparently no one knows what the wax droplets are intended for. Even the Cornell Lab doesn’t know, “The exact function of these tips is not known…”, although they think it might have something to do with attracting a mate.

The waxwing song is described as a high thin whistle.

In summer they like to fly over water and chase flying insects, where they display, as Cornell puts it, “dazzling aeronautics for a forest bird.” But the berries they devour seem to be what’s really important to this bird, playing a role in the waxwing’s breeding, social, and migratory behavior. And Audubon explains a rather mysterious behavior related to the berries that no one seems to have figured out yet. “Occasionally a line of waxwings perched on a branch will pass a berry back and forth, from bill to bill, until one of them swallows it.” (If anyone out there knows for certain why they do this, let us know.)

Sometimes doing bird research we come across what sounds like contradictory opinions regarding a bird behavior.  For example, what one person’s “dazzling aeronautics for a forest bird” can be another person’s “tubby, slightly clumsy swallow”. In other words, what one bird expert considers “dazzling” a different expert calls it “tubby, slightly clumsy.”  Anyway, as a comedienne from the original cast of Saturday Night Live might say, “It just goes to show…you never know.”

Cedar Waxwings have also been known to become intoxicated from fermented berries, and some in fact have died from overdose.  According to Ebird, the last reported sighting of a cedar waxwing in Brooklyn Bridge Park was January 4, 2022.

While researching this bird’s nest building practices, and wondering why it takes 5 or 6 days for the female to build a nest, I came across a publication titled “THE AUK: A Quarterly Journal of Ornithology”.  This publication was founded in 1884 and is the official publication of the American Ornithology Society (AOS). Today it is simply named “Ornithology”. This publication was recently recognized as one of the 100 most influential journals of biology and medicine over the past 100 years.

I came across VOL. LIII…No.1 from January 1936, in which James R. Crouch contributed a paper titled “Nesting Habit of the Cedar Waxwing”. Crouch said his observations took place near Ithaca, New York.  Crouch wrote his Masters’ Thesis at Cornell University on the natural history of the Cedar Waxwing.

Below we share with you an excerpt from his painstaking work. Crouch’s description of the cedar waxwing nesting habits (which probably haven’t changed since 1936) accompanied by two of his black and white photographs. (And we also might add, bird photography is something that has dramatically benefited from color film).

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