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February 2010 cover image canoe on Bois d'Arc Creek

Wild Thing: Berry Maniacs

Cedar waxwings are ravenous for berries.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

They rove together in tumultuous packs, black eyed and black masked, whistling shrilly as they hunt on the wing. Don’t worry — your valuables aren’t in danger. But count on those cedar waxwings to devour any berries left in the neighborhood!

That ravenous appetite for sugary berries — most notably those of the birds’ namesake, juniper — affects the travel and behavior of Bombycilla cedrorum, a common winter resident across Texas. As soon as the fruit is stripped from a tree or bush, they’re off again, looking for more. As naturalist John James Audubon once observed, cedar-birds (his name for the species) may “gorge themselves to such excess as sometimes to be unable to fly.” Or fly straight, either, if they happen to get hold of fermented berries.

Gluttony aside, cedar waxwings — beautifully outfitted with head crests, brown plumes and yellow-tipped tails — can act charming, as described by the late ornithologist Harry Oberholser and others. Perched in a row, they’ll pass a berry down the line and back until someone finally swallows it. Likewise, courting couples may ex-change a berry repeatedly.

That fetish for fruit explains why cedar waxwings — which migrate north to breed and return to Texas with the first cold fronts — mate long after other birds, usually in late summer when most fruits come into season. Nestlings eat insects the first day or two, then fruit thereafter. (When fruit’s not around, adults chow down on insects, too.)

By the way, the name “waxwing” refers to the flat red globs of “sealing wax” (not really) that tip the ends of the birds’ secondary wing feathers. No one’s sure about their purpose, but they apparently indicate age (the older the bird, the more red tips) and could help in attracting mates. 

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