Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

November 27, 2007

Do U See ‘der Waxwings

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:40 pm

As far as anyone knows, Icarus was the first and last human waxwing.  There’s a pretty good chance that his first flight would have ended differently had he elected to wait until a cold, cloudy day.  As it turned out, the wax holding his arm feathers in place melted in the bright sun and he tumbled to earth. On a cool cloudy day the wax might have stayed firm and the feathers remained in place.  The poor guy ended up discovering gravity instead. Reportedly, the name inscribed on his tombstone was “Icahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhus”  in honor of his tumble, but was returned to its original length at the request of his family.

  Icarus, even though he was a fictional failure, still influenced the history of aviation.  No one ever tried the waxwing approach ever again. It would be the lot of a couple of bike mechanics to finally defeat gravity with wings of canvas and wood many years later. Orville and Wilber never wasted any time on wax and real bird feathers.  Those brothers from Dayton did get their adjustable wing idea by watching real birds, however.  In retrospect, I believe Icarus was simply watching the wrong birds.  He was probably using Cedar Waxwings for his model, and he paid the price.

  It’s true that Cedar Waxwings aren’t found in the Mediterranean, where that sky tumbling myth man performed his ill-fated experiment, but I consider that a minor detail.  The cedar birds are found in our neck of the woods and they are a common sight this time of year. Although these beautiful little cinnamon hued birds do hang around cedar trees a lot, they are far more common around berry bushes in the wintertime. If you have fruiting ornamentals such as Mountain Ash or Flowering Crab in your yard, chances are pretty good you’ve hosted a waxwing feast or two. Here’s a single bird in the process of downing a frozen crabapple on a recent crispy morning.   

  True to the second half of their name, Waxwings do have bright red “waxy” structures on their wings, but the “wax” is at the tip of the feathers and does not act to hold them in place. The structures are only found on the inner, or secondary, feathers of the wing. Take a look here at this detail drawing to see what I’m talking about. I’ve seen everything from “red secretions” to “wax droplets” used to describe these things, but secreted wax has nothing to do with it.  In reality, these structures are flattened extensions of the main feather shaft. They are so brightly hued and so shiny smooth that they do look like the waxed surface of a Corvette or a set of well manicured nails.

   The coloration of the feather “fingernails” comes from the carotenoid pigments found in the food they eat.  Cedar Waxwings eat a lot of orangish and red fruit (Henry David Thoreau called them cherry birds because of their fondness for that fruit). Scientists have determined that these wing projections come into play during the mating season.  Since older birds have more of these than the younger birds, they believe waxwings pair up based on the number of these decorations. Both male and female birds have them, so they seek partners showing the mark of experience – which means having the maximum number of decorative wing ornaments.

  Another distinctive trait of the Cedar Waxwing, aside from the crest and black face mask, is the yellow tipped tail.  These tail feathers also have small flattened shaft extensions on them.  In the 1960’s, researchers started noticing a few waxwings showing up in the Northeast which had bright orange instead of yellow on the tail (see here). They believe this is the result of eating the red berries from a newly introduced species of Honeysuckle.  You know what they say, you are what you eat.

  As fruit eating birds, Waxwings will occasionally indulge in fermented berries and they have been known to get a bit wobbly – in other words, drunk. Many a waxwing has tumbled out of the sky in Icarusian fashion, not from melting wing wax but as the result of being plastered.

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