Cedar waxwings will adjust their diet throughout the year, depending on what food is available. Ariana van den Akker

 

Curious behaviors

I have just watched a cedar waxwing peck at a red maple blossom. What food does the maple flower provide the waxwing, a bird I normally see eating fruit?

Madge Baker, Shapleigh

Cedar waxwings are a great example of a species that has to switch its diet through the year. Food availability is a critically important factor in birds, like cedar waxwings, that can be seen year-round in Maine. While many of our birds must migrate south in the winter, others, like waxwings, which have a variable diet, take on a nomadic lifestyle, moving to wherever they can find food. For waxwings, the primary food source is indeed fruit, putting them in an appropriately named group of “frugivores,” but they will also eat insects when available.

Maple flowers are pollination generalists in that they can pollinate themselves, via the wind, or by insects. This gets us to why the waxwings are at maple flowers: they are most likely eating insects that are attracted to the nectar and pollen from these newly emerged flowers. You’ll often see waxwings acting like flycatchers, making aerial sallies to grab flying insects. You may also see birds attracted to sap wells on trees at this time of year – they are also catching insects.

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While most of the birds we have nesting in Maine rely on insects for feeding their young, waxwings will also feed their young fruit. I should pause and emphasize: Birds need native plants to host native insects, which are the food birds feed their young. Without native plants, we don’t have the next generation of birds. A great native plant that you can grow to support cedar waxwings is red-osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera), which is reportedly the most common food brought to young in the nest.

As an aside, there are a couple of really interesting behaviors to observe around waxwings and plants. First, have you heard about “drunk” waxwings that consume fermented fruit in late winter? You can often walk right up to these loopy birds as they gorge on fruit and sometimes flop around on the ground. And second, as we head into the nesting season, watch for male waxwings passing flower petals and other items to females, an act known as courtship feeding.

Feather forensics

Doug, I came across this crime scene and feathers on a trail near Little Great Pond in Cape Elizabeth. My first thought was northern flicker, but this was in an area of dense undergrowth in woods with no open area. Any ideas?

Steve Myers

There are a few ways to identify a bird by only a feather.

Identifying a bird species by a single feather is a remarkably fun challenge. Usually, when identifying a bird, I encourage people to never rely on a single field mark. That is where most people go wrong, assuming, for example, the bird they are looking at is a tanager because it is red, but so are cardinals. People ignore the color of the wings, shape of the bill, and lack of crest on the head.

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We can apply a similar bit of advice when looking at a feather. First, what part of the body did it come from? We tend to come across the larger feathers on a bird for a number of reasons. These most likely come from the tail (rectrices) or wings (remiges). These are the flight feathers, which you can generally tell (apart from their size) by the shape, with the leading edge (called the outer web, on the outside of the shaft) being narrower than the trailing edge (the inner web). The farther you get out on the wing or tail, the more pronounced this asymmetrical shape becomes. Smaller feathers, mostly coverts, that cover the body and give a bird its shape and contours, are much harder to identify. They usually have a downy base to them, where birds can trap and warm air to provide insulation, much like a down jacket.

Then, once you know which feather it is, size will help narrow it down to family. Small birds, like warblers or chickadees will have remiges around two inches long, and rectrices only slightly longer. Medium-sized birds – like jays, doves, or cardinals – have remiges closer to four inches. Larger birds like hawks, owls or gulls will be closer to eight inches.

Now you can focus on the smaller identifying marks. Look for certain colors or unique shapes. Owls have serrated edges on their outer wing feathers to enable nearly silent flight. Woodpeckers have extremely rigid and pointy tail feathers for propping against trees. Your feathers are from a northern flicker; how they got to where you found them, though, is harder to tell.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has an amazing resource called “The Feather Atlas” that you can use to look up feather images by each bird species, available for free at: fws.gov/lab/featheratlas/

Have you got a nature question of your own? Email questions to [email protected] and visit maineaudubon.org to learn more about virtual and backyard birding, online classes, and other programs about wildlife and habitat.