Summer Nesters: Cedar Waxwings & Goldfinches

Cedar waxwing by Gerry Beetham

In the fields

we let them have-

in the fields

we don’t want yet-

where thistles rise

out of the marshlands of spring, and spring open-

each bud

a settlement of riches-

a coin of reddish fire-

the finches

wait for midsummer,

for the long days,

for the brass heat,

for the seeds to begin to form in the hardening thistles,

dazzling as the teeth of mice,

but black,

filling the face of every flower.

Then they drop from the sky.

A buttery gold,

they swing on the thistles, they gather

the silvery down, they carry it

in their finchy beaks

to the edges of the fields,

to the trees,

as though their minds were on fire

with the flower of one perfect idea-

and there they build their nests

and lay their pale-blue eggs,

every year,

and every year

the hatchlings wake in the swaying branches,

in the silver baskets,

and love the world.

Is it necessary to say any more?

Have you heard them singing in the wind, above the final fields?

Have you ever been so happy in your life?

  • Mary Oliver. New and Selected Poems: Volume One. Beacon Press, 1992.


Male goldfinch by Sue Carr

The Changing Seasonal Bird Chorus of Summer

While the days turn doggedly humid, summer swings for the fences, and Cape Cod seems full to the brink with visitors, birds continue to go about their lives nesting and raising their broods. 

Resident species like American robin continue to nest, but seasonally transient orioles, flycatchers, warblers, and vireos start to go mysteriously quiet. These migratory species are adapted to time their nesting seasons to peak food abundance of caterpillars and other insects. Typically, these species have long since found mates, established their territories, nested, and if all went well, their young fledged and joined the skies. Because their nesting seasons are short, many migratory species only have enough time to raise one brood per year.

Some species, though, don’t even begin to nest until mid-summer. Lemon-colored male American goldfinches in their breeding finery fill the air with their sweet warbling songs. Highly gregarious cedar waxwings call their high bzee notes to each other, flocking together throughout the year.

These two species time their summer nesting seasons around the peak food availability of their choice menu items: seeds for goldfinches and fruit for waxwings. These species do well in many suburban yards, due to their habitat preferences for open areas, but they are also commonly seen at HCT’s Robert F. Smith Cold Brook Preserve, Muddy Creek Headwaters Preserve, and other local conservation areas with a diversity of habitats.

American goldfinches are identifiable when flying even at a great distance due to their bouncing flight patterns and twittering call notes. They are among the latest nesting birds in Massachusetts with nesting occurring into September. Their vegetarian diet consists of highly nutritious thistle, sunflower, aster, and coneflower seeds during the summer months.

The bright yellow male and the dull yellow and olive-colored female court in spring, and in summer, move through the trees together choosing a nesting site. Often the female goldfinch builds her nest made of tightly-woven “silvery down” of thistle, milkweed, and other plants along with spider and webworm silk. She usually chooses the top of a shrub for weaving her nest.

American goldfinch at HCT’s Muddy Creek Headwaters Preserve by Sue Swartzlander

She lays 4-6 pale bluish white eggs and incubates them for about 2 weeks. When the helpless young hatch, they are fed by their parents for 11-17 days, rapidly developing, until they are ready to fly. Unusually, perhaps in an effort to deter nest predators, adult goldfinches do not remove the nestlings’ fecal sacs from their nests. Their unsanitary nests can later be identified as to species by this characteristic. If a goldfinch pair is lucky, they may raise two broods in a year.

Cedar waxwings are identified by the warm beige-taupe plumage of their body feathers, a black mask, and a crest atop their heads. This species is sexually monomorphic. Their primary feathers in the wing, and tail feathers appear to be dipped in red and yellow paint, respectively. These colors are likely influenced by the waxwing’s diet of brightly-colored fruits such as crabapples, cherries, blackberries, and others.

Because waxwings swallow their fruits whole, they spread undigested seeds throughout the landscape. Some cedar waxwings have orange-tipped tails, due to a diet shift and dependence upon the hyper-abundant fruits of highly invasive honeysuckle shrubs. Fruit, especially berries, makes up about 80% of a waxwing’s diet even during the winter. Waxwings are even known to get intoxicated from eating fruits that have fermented in the summer heat! The other 20% of a waxwing’s diet is comprised of flying insects, for which they sally out and snatch in mid-air.

Cedar waxwing by Sue Carr

Cedar waxwings nest in the lower canopy in open areas, often near water, building a nest of grass, plant fibers, pine straw, and downy materials. Waxwings tolerate their neighbors well and only defend a small territory if nesting close to other waxwings. The female usually lays 4 gray, spotted eggs, which she incubates for about 12 days. The young are also helpless at hatching, and fledge after 14-18 days. Cedar waxwings will often raise two broods together if successful.

These two hardy species are residents throughout Cape Cod during the entire year. They both flock up in winter with other members of their species. They add a great deal of color to our landscapes and bring joy and inspiration to naturalists and artists throughout the year.

Story by Tyler Maikath, HCT’s Outreach & Stewardship Coordinator

Tyler studied Wildlife and Conservation Biology at the University of Rhode Island and developed an interest in birds, their natural histories, and conservation. After graduation, Tyler worked a variety of seasonal positions focused primarily on seabird and shorebird conservation with Mass Audubon’s Coastal Waterbird Program and Mass Wildlife’s Buzzards Bay Tern Restoration Project. In 2009, Tyler earned his Master’s Degree in Environmental Studies at Antioch University of New England.