I don’t know exactly how long they’ve been back, the Cedar Waxwings. Serious birders** know from the hour. I only know by the near-silent whistles that suddenly populate our trees. And I know because we got our first injured Cedar Waxwings at the hospital in the past two weeks — immobilized by window strikes. Today, I saw the first flock of Waxwings returning to the pyracantha and holly trees in our shared back garden.
A fellow volunteer who’s brilliant in the bird kind of way (and other ways) educated me on the red, waxy tips of the bird’s wings — the obvious source of the bird’s name. The red, waxy spots are pigmented portions of the secondary feathers. The substance is astaxanthin, or as the National Center for Biotechnology describes it:
it’s “. . . astacene (3,3′,4,4′-tetra-keto-beta-carotene), the oxidation product of astaxanthin.”
You can see the red waxy marks in this photo below . . . of a Waxwing in one of its favorite culinary pursuits:
From a rehabilitator’s standpoint, the Cedar Waxwings are among my favorites. Their bandit-mask appearance is enough to justify the affection. But the empathy swells when you realize how many Waxwings hit windows, flying in close formation as they do. They startle and flush easily, and can get in trouble if they do so with windows nearby.
A few days ago, we received an unusual and tragic duo in the hospital — a waxwing and a predator, a Sharp-shinned Hawk, who’d both hit an acrylic backboard of a basketball hoop, ostensibly in a pursuit. For those of us self-proclaimed softies (that would be me), situations like this never fail to produce a few lumps in the throat.
The positive counterpoint is that those birds that do end up in our hospital (or any other wildlife hospital) stand a chance at full recovery, with care and medication. I didn’t realize until I started volunteering, the magnitude of the head injuries birds can and do incur, depending on the force with which they hit windows. There are medications given to reduce swelling and otherwise help them recover from such damage.
If, as fall migration moves into your zone, you have waxwings or any birds colliding with or having near misses around your windows, there are things you can do to reduce the bird strikes. Audubon has some helpful information on what you can do for the feathered people among us: Minimizing Window Collisions.
** That link, by the way, takes you to an interesting NYT article on delineations between the serious and not-so-serious bird people.