Waxing Poetic Over Waxwings

There are an infinite number of delightful and remarkable things birds do that I get to observe up close while performing the otherwise routine tasks of feeding them and cleaning up around them at our local wildlife rehab center. On one such occasion in August, I had the extreme pleasure of witnessing some extra-special behaviors by some young cedar waxwings.

I had cycled back to the birds in net cages that were being fed solid foods every half hour. One particular net cage I moved on to contained all cedar waxwings. A chorus of soft hissy-whistles began as soon as I lifted the little cover over the cage, making my heart burst with joy for about the 20th time since I had started my shift. Several birds were already perched on a branch while a few others jockeyed for position to be first in line for fruit cocktail. I dipped the dull-tipped tweezers in to the little tray of fruit and began dispensing small beakfuls to each guest. After the first round of this, I noticed one bird had hopped away from the group, stood beside the dish of fruit, and was repeatedly bending forward and back, forward and back, forward only to the point of getting the tip of his beak in the fruit and then upright again. He was mimicking movements of getting food from the tray! It reminded me of those old drinking bird toys. He wasn’t there just yet as nothing was going down the hatch, but he was clearly putting two and two together. I’ve seen a number of young birds perched on top of their food dish nipping at bits of food but not like this, not these very first attempts at eating independently, especially since this group had been in an incubator for weeks and had been completely helpless. These are the moments that have me pinching myself to confirm that I’m really seeing what I’m seeing, because I find that getting to peek behind the curtains of what nature otherwise does not let us experience so up close and personal to be one of the greatest gifts of all.

During a feeding later that same day, I also observed one waxwing that I’m pretty sure was trying to cheat the system. They remained perched shoulder to shoulder on the branch as I tweezered out fruit one by one. Everyone had been sitting very nicely through the first two rounds and gaping appropriately during their turn, but as I finished working my way back down the line once more, the last bird in line fluttered to the end of the other side and wedged himself between the first two, essentially positioning himself to get extras more quickly. Of course I can’t be certain why he felt compelled at that moment to play musical perching, but to hazard a guess, it was an intentional move to get more food even faster. It wasn’t blatant aggression like most starlings I’ve fed that elbow their mates out of their way and wrangle to get each bite of food coming through the door but rather just a subtle bit of trickery which I found to be charmingly naughty.

According to my dog, I’m well known for rewarding naughty-but-impossibly-cute behavior, and so for his efforts, that smooth operator got a wink and an extra berry.

As a volunteer with our local wildlife center, I’ve been trained by staff to safely provide general care to birds and animals. Please call your local wildlife rehabilitator if you find injured or orphaned wildlife to ensure that the animal receives the appropriate care.

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