Death of a Cedar Waxwing

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Some deaths make waves. They’re noticed, written about, talked about, mourned.

Other deaths, not so much.

Yesterday morning, I noticed a bird lying in the grass just a few feet from the back deck. It was a Cedar Waxwing, as the brilliant yellow tail tips and the crest made clear. I thought it might be stunned, so I kept my distance so as not to frighten it further.

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But I saw no flutter of feathers, no glitter of eye, no movement of breath. The little creature was dead.  I lifted it and turned it over.

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There was no blood, but the feathers were disarrayed and perhaps damaged. Was this a result of sitting in dew-wet grass for hours? Or had the bird been hurt?

I was surprised at how heavy the little bird felt in my hand.

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A living bird feels so much lighter. (The Baltimore Orioles below are held by ornithologist Eric Slayton, but I had the opportunity to handle a couple of birds on this bird banding trip to the Bronx.)

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I wondered if the Cedar Waxwing was a juvenile. I saw only the faintest yellow on its underparts, and no sign of the bright, waxy-looking red wingtips that give the bird its common name.

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But Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds maintains that the “red wax tips” are not always present. And the damage to the birds’ breast feathers may have destroyed the yellow of the under feathers. So I assume this was an adult. Whether male or female, I can’t say, since male and female waxwings are close to identical to an untrained eye like mine.

The bird looked peaceful in its oddly settled pose, even when I set it down for a moment on the picnic table.

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I wonder what happened to it. Did it escape from a cat, only to die later of internal injuries? Had it flown into something, and suffered injury? Or was it ill and could simply fly no further?

I took it down to a scrubby patch by the bay, and left it there, thinking some scavenger would appreciate the morsel. A day later, it remained untouched.

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R.I.P., Cedar Waxwing and all small creatures at the end of their days.

Explore posts in the same categories: 2013, Birds, Fall, In the Country, Seasons, Wildlife/Natural History

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15 Comments on “Death of a Cedar Waxwing”

  1. Sunset_Va Says:

    Thank you for caring enough to write an eulogy for the Cedar Waxwing. They are beautiful birds, I had a sad experience with a young Cedar Waxwing today, they are not common in the area of Virginia I live at. I was doing some research on the Cedars, and found your blog, and the special way you wrote of a sad death.

    I learned that the Cowbird chicks in a Cedar Waxwings nest, most likely will not live, due to being fed a high sugar fruit diet, contrary to the parasitic Cowbirds insect diet.

    I live in the country, and am always happening upon dead animals, I always wish them a peaceful journey to the other side.

  2. Georgia Says:

    One of my first direct experiences with a dead bird was with a cedar waxwing.


  3. beautiful post, Melissa, about the mysteries. Also mysterious that we don’t see more dead birds, i mean, where do they go when they die? to hold it in your hand… to feel its weight, to notice its passing… soulful work.


    • Thank you, Louise. I remember once in eastern Oregon, not too far from Malheur Wildlife Reserve, we walked to the top of a rocky rise and there, just lying right out in the open on a stone outcropping, was a dead shrike. I had always wanted to see a shrike, but this was a strange and striking sighting.

  4. virginiafair Says:

    How sad. I must say I’ve never come upon a dead bird, and hope I never will.

  5. mthew Says:

    One of my favorite birds! Strange we should both post about dead birds today, but it is migration, and birds are moving through. My YBSS probably hit a building after getting confused by all the god-damned light the city produces.

  6. Colette Says:

    Always sad to see a dead bird. We had thousands of swallows die here in Oregon recently, they were caught in a huge rainstorm and couldn’t feed while migrating.

  7. Barbara Says:

    Beautiful birds – have had a nest of them in the apple trees at my former home…. but I too find it mysterious when suddenly a bird lies on the grass or leaves and is dead with no apparent cause. I always wonder…

    Great photos – thanks for sharing Melissa.


  8. Wonder if it hit a window and died of concussion? We always put up silhouettes and translucent screens to prevent this… Maybe it died of something else.


    • Highly unlikely it hit a window on our house, although not impossible. ALso possible it hit somewhere else, and made it as far as our yard. On the other hand, those breast feathers did look oddly disturbed, though I saw no wound. Good to put up silhouettes & screens to help the birds avoid windows.


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