Sycamore Grove Farm, Madison County
The Cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)is a social bird that lives in Virginia all year round. Their population increases during the winter with migration from the north. Mostly seen in flocks, cedar waxwings move around looking for berries, their food of choice. They eat serviceberry, cedar berry, strawberry, mulberry, dogwood and raspberry. These birds eat in shifts, with one group eating first and then moving out of the way for the next group to come in. This is very different than most birds, who just try to grab what they can individually.
Cedar waxwings are a major dispersing agent of seeds of various fruit species as their digestive system is so fast that the seed is expelled intact. They can also be responsible for significant damage to commercial fruit farms, which consider them a pest.
During the summer before berries are ripe, cedar waxwings eat insects, including mayflies, dragonflies and stoneflies, which they catch on the wing. In late summer and fall, cedar waxwings have been observed eating overripe berries that have fermented in the sun, which causes the birds to become intoxicated. Because they can gorge on fruit, there have been instances when individual birds have actually died from intoxication. While I have never seen this “drunken” behavior, last year I saw a flock clean every single berry off of one of our large cedar trees that was laden with ripe berries.
The habitat that attracts cedar waxwings includes woodlands of all types, particularly areas along streams. They are also observed in old fields and grasslands, farms, orchards, and suburban gardens that have fruiting trees or shrubs. Cedar waxwings spend much of their time in the tops of tall trees. Our farm is bordered by trees on two sides and the farm across the street is wooded – so we often see cedar waxwings in flight and in our trees. They are vulnerable to window collisions and being struck by cars as the birds feed on fruiting trees along the roadside.
Cedar waxwings are “serial monogamous” – they form matings bonds that last one breeding season (from the end of spring through late summer). They reach reproductive maturity at one year and can live up to eight years in the wild. While categorized as a song bird, the National Wildlife Federation notes “their singing voices are nothing to sing about.” Their song is a high-pitched “sseee” call. The “waxwing” in its name refers to the brilliant-red wax droplets on their feathers which appear from after the second year. Scientists are not sure what the exact function is of brightly-color tips but assume it may be used to attract mates.
So keep your eye out for these beautiful birds – they are fast flyers (up to 25 mph) so you just might miss them as they fly by.
Sycamore Grove Farm, Madison County
Carl Linnaeus gave the Killdeer its scientific name - Charadrius vociferus - in the 10th edition of his Systema Naturae. Its common name comes from its shrill, two-syllable call: a shrill wailing “kill-deer” that is a distinctive way to identify it, even when it’s not in sight. Other 18th century naturalists had additional names for the killdeer, including “chattering plover” and “noisy plover," given it is in the plover family.
Plovers are normally found near bodies of water: the ocean, lakes, and rivers. Killdeer can be found near water as well – but they are equally as common to pastures, lawns, golf courses, athletic fields, parking lots and even rooftops and airports! We have Killdeer on our farm all year around. We see them primarily on the perimeter between our lawn and our hay field. They are very active when the hay is cut, as it stirs up lots of insects!
The Killdeer has a distinctive behavior used to protect its nest, called the “broken wing act”. It flutters along the ground in a show of injury, luring intruders away from its nest. This is an important behavior as the Killdeer’s nest is on the ground in an open area, providing the adults good visibility during incubation. Another behavior that has been observed in pastures is the Killdeer fluffing up its feathers to repel cows and horses from stepping on their nests.
The adult Killdeers sometime lines the nest with pebbles, grass, twigs or other bits of debris. The female Killdeer lays between 3-5 eggs and both male and female share incubation, which lasts between 24-28 days. The adults may soak their belly feathers in water to help cool the eggs in hot climates. The young leave the nest shortly after hatching. While the parents tend to them until they can fly, the young birds feed themselves. They are able to fly after about 25 days.
Killdeer are mainly insect eaters. They search out beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers, as well as spiders, earthworms, crayfish and snails. They will forage at night when the moon is full or close to full – both because of increased insect abundance and reduced predation during the night. You can sometimes hear them calling to each other on a moonlit night.
Most of Virginia is warm enough for the Killdeer to stay here year round. Their main threat is pesticide poisoning since they forage on lawns and other open spaces that are often sprayed with toxins. These same pesticides also kill their main food source – insects. So avoid using pesticides and leave the bugs for the birds!
Sycamore Grove Farm, Madison County
With the male’s brilliant yellow color, it’s understandable how the American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) got the nickname “wild canary”. It is most active during the day, flying about in its distinctive wavelike pattern. It also hops along the ground in search of seed.
Goldfinches are year-round residents in most of Virginia, where they are often found in open fields, scrubby areas and woodlands. Our farm offers them the pick of which environment they want, as we have all three.
Goldfinches are “granivores,” meaning they eat mainly seeds. Some of their favorites include sunflower, thistle and elm seeds. They frequent our bird feeders, allowing us to get close for wonderful pictures. They also love our bee balm plant when it goes to seed. We often see a couple will land on a single stalk and gorge on the seeds. (Note: if you plant bee balm, you will definitely get goldfinches in your yard!)
A goldfinch flight has been described as “roller-coasting”– as they go up and down, all the while twittering loudly throughout. Their most recognized call has been characterized as “po-ta-to-chip.” During the summer months the male’s bright yellow color contrasts dramatically with the somewhat drab female. Scientists speculate that many male birds have colorful plumage to draw predators away from the female on the nest. During the winter months both male and female are somewhat similar in coloring.
A goldfinch pair usually stays together for only one breeding season. They are primarily monogamous but females have been observed switching mates after producing their first brood. The first male will typically take care of the fledglings while the female goes off to start another brood with a different male. Newly hatched goldfinches can fly after about two weeks but may stay with their parents for another month before leaving on their own. A goldfinch life span is 3-6 years. The longest lived goldfinch was recorded as 11 years old. The primary predators of goldfinches are sparrow hawks and domestic cats. Their nests are preyed upon by many small mammals, snakes and larger birds.
Goldfinches typically migrate south for the winter. Females will go further south during the winter than males and younger males will winter further north than adult males. But they rarely over-winter in northern areas that get below 0 degrees Fahrenheit for extended periods of time.
So enjoy these delightful little finches – and if you keep your feeder full, you will probably see them all year long!
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