Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Episode 332 (9-5-16): When Fruits Wane, Cedar Waxwings Flash Their Colors Over Aquatic Insect Habitats

CLICK HERE to listen to episode audio (3:28)

Transcript of audio, notes on the audio, images, and additional information follow below.

All Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 9-2-16.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of September 5, 2016.

This week, we feature another mystery sound. Have a listen for about 15 seconds, and see if you can guess what’s making the following whistling sounds. And here’s a hint: as fruits and flying insects WAX and wane, this WINGED creature’s food habits also change.

SOUNDS - ~16 sec

If you guessed a Cedar Waxwing, you’re right! If you’ve ever gotten a good look at this 5-inch-long bird, you may have seen its distinctive black mask, yellow or sometimes orange tail bar, and bright red, waxy secretions on their wings, from which the name “waxwing” comes.  Cedar Waxwings occur throughout Virginia and in all seasons.  The other North American waxwing species, the Bohemian Waxwing, has only been observed occasionally in a few Virginia counties.

Cedar Waxwings are large fruit-eaters, whenever fruits are available on vines, shrubs, or trees, including cedar trees, whose seed pods can provide a major part of the birds’ winter diet.  Often the birds will gather in large groups at a fruit source.  Cedar Waxwings’ high fruit diet sometimes leads to flying drunkenly, when the birds consume older fruits whose sugar has fermented into alcohol.

But when fruits are scarce, Cedar Waxwings turn largely to insects, particularly the adults of species with aquatic immature stages, such as mayflies, stoneflies, and dragonflies.  At a Virginia pond or stream in summer, you can see Cedar Waxwings darting off of a tree perch for a mid-air capture of emerging or swarming aquatic insect prey.  That flying ability can be on display in winter, too—some people have reported seeing Cedar Waxwings catching snowflakes!

With their dashing colors, darting flights over water, and often dense flocks, Cedar Waxwings are a fascinating feathered treat—unless you’re an adult aquatic insect!

Thanks to Lang Elliott for permission to use this week’s sounds, from the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs.

SOUND – ~ 5 sec


For more Virginia water sounds, music, and information, visit us online at virginiawaterradio.org, or call us at (540) 231-5463. Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment. Thanks to Stewart Scales for his banjo version of Cripple Creek to open and close the show. In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


The sounds of Cedar Waxwings were taken from the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs-Eastern Region CD set, by Lang Elliott with Donald and Lillian Stokes (Time Warner Audio Books, copyright 1997), used with permission of Lang Elliott, whose work is available online at the “Music of Nature” Web site, http://www.musicofnature.org/.

Thanks to Stephen Schoenholtz for suggesting this episode.

Thanks to Chuck and Mary Houska for permission to visit their Blacksburg, Va., pond to observe Cedar Waxwings feeding on emerging aquatic insects.


Cedar Waxwing at Hawley Bog in Hawley, Massachusetts, July 2011. Photo by Bill Thompson, made available for public use by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Digital Library, online at http://digitalmedia.fws.gov, accessed 9-1-16.

Cedar Waxwing in a sycamore tree at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, August 2015. Photo by Michelle Smith, made available for public use by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Digital Library, online at http://digitalmedia.fws.gov, accessed 9-1-16.

Tree-lined pond in Blacksburg, Va., where Cedar Waxwings were feeding on emerging mayflies and other aquatic insects, September 1, 2016.


Used in Audio

Arthur Cleveland Bent, “Cedar Waxwing,” in “Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds,” Smithsonian Institution National Museum Bulletin, Vol. 197 (1950), pages 79-102, accessed online at http://birdsbybent.com/ch31-40/cwaxwing.html#winter. This document includes an account of an observer seeing Cedar Waxwings catch snowflakes.

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “All About Birds,” online at http://www.allaboutbirds.org.

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and American Ornithologists’ Union, “Birds of North America Online,” online at http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna (subscription required).

National Wildlife Federation, “Cedar Waxwing,” online at https://www.nwf.org/Wildlife/Wildlife-Library/Birds/Cedar-Waxwing.aspx.

Chandler S. Robbins et al., A Guide to Field Identification of Birds of North America, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2001.

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “Fish and Wildlife Information Service,” online at http://vafwis.org/fwis/?Menu=Home.Species+Information.

For More Information about Birds in Virginia and Elsewhere

Alonso Abugattas, “Where there are berries, there might be cedar waxwings,” Bay Journal, October 2023.

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society, “eBird” Web site at http://ebird.org/content/ebird/. Here you can find locations of species observations made by contributors, and you can sign up to contribute your own observations.

Virginia Society of Ornithology, online at http://www.virginiabirds.net. The Society is non-profit organization dedicated to the study, conservation, and enjoyment of birds in the Commonwealth.

Xeno-canto Foundation Web site at http://www.xeno-canto.org/. The site provides bird songs from around the world.


All Water Radio episodes are listed by subject category at the Index link above (http://www.virginiawaterradio.org/p/index.html); see particularly the “Birds” subject category.

For a previous episode on another group of birds the feed on insects over water, please see “Swallows,” Episode 329 (8-15-16).


This episode may help with the following Virginia’s 2010 Science Standards of Learning (SOLs):

Grades K-6 Earth Resources Theme

4.9 - Va. natural resources, including watersheds, water resources, and organisms.

Grades K-6 Life Processes Theme
1.5 - animals’ basic needs and distinguishing characteristics.
3.4 - behavioral and physiological adaptations.

Grades K-6 Living Systems Theme
2.5 - living things as part of a system, including habitats.
3.5 - food webs.
3.6 - ecosystems, communities, populations, shared resources.

Life Science Course
LS.8 - community and population interactions, including food webs, niches, symbiotic relationships.

Biology Course
BIO.8 - dynamic equilibria and interactions within populations, communities, and ecosystems; including nutrient cycling, succession, effects of natural events and human activities, and analysis of the flora, fauna, and microorganisms of Virginia ecosystems.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at http://www.doe.virginia.gov/testing/.