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Neotropical Migrant Birds Find a Summer Home at Nisqually

Cedar Waxwing 512x373

A walk at the Refuge in summer can be overwhelming; the lush foliage crowds in from all sides, flowers dazzle the eyes, and the bird chatter can be intense. A visitor could be forgiven for overlooking a mundane, grayish brown bird as it flitters past to land on a nearby branch – there are so many more colorful and flashy birds to see. But look closely – use binoculars – and the gray bird becomes a vision to behold. A black mask covers the eyes. The chest is light and slightly yellow, and the color fades around the bird’s edges, blending and fading in a way so gradual and subtle it is hard to believe. The bird is stately and sleek, with a crest atop its head. But most remarkable of all is the bright, chartreuse stripe across the tail and the row of florescent orange dots on the wings – these red dots are not feathers, but drops of a waxy secretion, from which the species’ common name has been derived …

This is a Cedar Waxwing, one member of a larger family of birds called Neotropical migrants. These are birds which migrate from the tropics to breeding grounds in Washington and beyond each Spring, then return to the tropics in the late summer and fall. Many varieties of Neotropical migrant get more attention than the Cedar Waxwing: Tanagers, Grosbeaks, Orioles, and Warblers are all more colorful and visible. But like all of these, the Cedar Waxwing has flown thousands of miles to arrive in our area and at the Refuge for the summer.

Most species of Neotropical migrant are locally in decline. This is largely due to habitat loss, but also in part because of the Brown-headed Cowbird, an invasive species indigenous to the Great Plains (the presence of cowbirds is an ancillary result of habitat fragmentation). The clearing of forests from farmland, industry, and urban development have left conduits of desolation which the Brown-headed Cowbird has been able to follow, extending its range to cover the whole of North America. Wherever the Brown-headed Cowbird goes, it parasitizes the nests of similar-sized birds. The cowbird eggs hatch faster than others in the host nest and the chicks also develop more quickly, allowing them to crowd out and kill the host-bird’s chicks either by dominating feeding, or by actively tossing out or smothering them. In this way, the cowbird has become a formidable threat to Neotropical migrant abundance.

The Cedar Waxwing is a noteworthy exception. To a degree that is quite unique, the Cedar Waxwing lives almost exclusively on the many fruiting plants that are so abundant on the Refuge: Salmonberry, Indian plum, elderberry, and non-native species like blackberry and apple. The Cedar Waxwing diet is consequently so acidic that the Brown-headed Cowbird chicks cannot survive. In this way, the Cedar Waxing is an invaluable Neotropical migrant, helping to counteract the spread of parasitic cowbirds. So next time you’re at the Refuge, don’t overlook the little gray birds: they may not be flashy, but sometimes there’s much more to them than meets the eye.
Page Photo Credits — Cedar Waxwing by Michael Schramm/USFWS
Last Updated: Jun 13, 2013
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