By PATRICIA SIMPSON
Cedar waxwings are possibly some of the most striking birds one can encounter in San Diego in the wintertime. Since they are small (about the size of a sparrow) they are often heard before they are seen. They travel in groups (aptly called an “ear-full” or a “museum”) and communicate with high-pitched trills and whizzy thin whistles. They can be heard and seen in Mission Trails Regional Park like the ones in this observation by mhrains posted on iNaturalist at bit.ly/2PHcX2A.
Once the birds are observed, they are hard to forget. Cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) wear a stylish black mask across the face and sport an elegant crest above the head. Their plumage ranges from a soft rusty color on the head, fading into pale brown on the shoulders and back, and grey on the wings and tail. The under belly is pale yellow. The tip of the tail bears a bright yellow bar and sometimes, the red waxy wing tips that give the bird its name are visible.
When cedar waxwings visit my yard, I like to call them “masked bandits with wings.” What are they there to steal? Berries and pomes! An ear-full of waxwings can clear a native toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) of all its pomes in a day or two. Though these birds supplement their diet with insects in warmer months, their favorite food is fruit and they are considered true frugivores, meaning they eat the whole fruit, digest the pulp and pass the seeds intact. This makes them excellent propagation tools in the environment.
Last year, a flock of cedar waxwings cleaned out my toyon within a couple of days. They chose a high perch over my driveway to complete digestion. Needless to say, they left a mess on the ground. But complain I did not! I grabbed a pair of tweezers, proceeded to collect the freshly cleaned seeds and started my own propagation project in my greenhouse. I was amazed at the results: over 90% germination rate when planting the seeds with no further treatment at room temperature (compared to 50% according to nativeplantnetwork.org).
— Patricia Simpson is a trail guide at Mission Trails Regional Park.