The usual image of the Waxwing is of a flock of them rabidly devouring berries from a tree or shrub. But since there are few berries of any sort around during late summer, what’s a waxwing to do but to take advantage of an alternate—and protein-rich—source of calories: insects.
Hence we get the unusual scene of Waxwings perched on high branches over Lake Appert, periodically dashing out to catch tiny flying insects and returning to their perches to wait, briefly, for more entomophagous opportunities. Some even swoop downward and over the water surface. So we have these berry eaters acting more like flycatcher/swallow hybrids—hence my silly but hopefully forgivable re-naming of the species.
While the Waxwings take advantage of the abundance of summer insects, visitors to Warden’s Watch at the Celery Farm have the opportunity of seeing these birds closer than usual as they perch on bare branches within ten feet of the platform and carry on their feeding behavior for minutes or hours at a time. And what an opportunity for photography, even for folks without super-long telephoto lenses!
Watching the “flyswallows” in action brought several words to mind: beauty, adaptability, design. Beauty? Just look at the photos, which don’t do justice to the real thing (but click on them to enlarge them anyway). Adaptability? Plucking berries may be easier, but these creatures have been given the ability to take advantage of a completely different diet when necessary for survival. And design? It is evident in every detail of bird anatomy, from feathers, hollow bones and neuromuscular control that enable flight—to eyes that can see miniscule insects from several yards away (I couldn’t see even one of the insects the birds were flying after.)
Perhaps a fourth word comes to mind: intelligence. The term “birdbrain” should be deleted from our vocabulary. I can’t attest to the IQ of the Cedar Waxwing, but recent work with crows shows some amazing mental abilities. An experiment was designed in which a crow had to retrieve a short stick to get at a longer stick with which to retrieve a piece of food—and the bird figured it out on the first try, never having seen the equipment. Please, none of this “birds are evolved from dinosaurs” stuff. But then again, maybe dinosaurs were smart, too. The Designer of both birds and dinosaurs knows.