How a Waxwing woos a mate: A story with a surprise ending

by Anders Gyllenhaal
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Two Cedar Waxwings materialized above the wildlife park in Northern Virginia and pirouetted into an aerial ballet. They rose and fell, circled high above the lake, then swooped down close to the ground. They pulled all this off in precise formation like two tiny jets on military maneuvers.

And then the real show began. They landed side by side on a branch at the edge of the lake and began an exchange recognizable no matter whether the species is winged, four-footed or two.

The mating dance was on.

The Cedar Waxwing is an elegant bird. It has a black mask, slicked back head feathers, a brilliant touch of red at the wingtips and a yellow bar on its tail. A junta general couldn’t come up with more dazzling regalia.

They are full of energy, captivating and fascinating, says Robert Rice, a veteran scientist with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, who wrote the center’s summary on Cedar Waxwings.

These stylish birds are also gluttons. They can strip a tree of fruit so quickly they become temporarily too weighty to fly. “They can eat so much fruit it ferments in their gut and they go wobbly for a while,” said Rice. 

Cedar Waxwings often travel in small groups, and will sweep through a set of trees and scarf up every ripe berry like locusts.

But the other day at Huntley Meadows Park in Alexandria, Va., these two stayed mostly to themselves. They seemed transfixed when they landed on a branch and began their dance.

He looked away, just as she was glancing toward him. Then she looked away as if bored beyond belief. This went on for a few minutes. At one point, he stepped to an outer branch as if ready to part, then he jumped back beside her, a little closer than before.

 

Then she opened her mouth. Who know’s what she had to say, but it got immediate results. 

 

He sidled up and leaned in as if ready to plant a peck on her cheek. She was right there with him, closing in, beak to beak. Finally, he made his move: Out of somewhere he produced a tiny insect. She took him right up on it. What looked from a distance like a kiss was something equally intimate: A prized morsel of bug.

 

It’s likely this was more than a mere gift. Cedar Waxwings are known for sharing fruit, Rice said. Further, many birds will offer one another food during mating rituals to get attention and show what good breadwinners they would be. “That kind of clues her in to the fact that he can provide for young’uns,” said Rice.

Before long, the two Cedar Waxwings flew off, perhaps to continue the mating dance, perhaps to prepare to settle down for the nesting season.

Either way, they left us with a lesson we won’t forget: One species’ tasty bug is another’s flowers and chocolate.

 

 

 

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