Friday, October 21, 2011

Cedar Waxwings

The feathers are glossy brown and streaked with white.  The tip of the tail looks like it was dipped in paint made from golden aspen leaves.  A jet-black mask outlined by white extends from eyes forward to the nostrils.  The warm body is limp and still.  This beautiful young cedar waxwing died in my hands just now. 

As I pulled up to the back of the Museum on my bike, exhilarated from the delicious air and golden morning sunlight, a loud thunk sounded from the window above my head.  At my feet dropped this lovely creature.  I observed it for a second to see if it would rouse on its own.  It lay still, beak open, so I stooped to pick it up.  As I held it the beak opened and closed one last time.  The lower eyelid slid up to cover one shiny black eye, and the body slowly cooled. 

While saddened by this death, I am thankful for an opportunity to examine such a beautiful bird up close.  I often admire the adult cedar waxwings in our Collections Room, and show visitors their lovely yellow tail-tips, rakish black mask, silky lemon breast, and brilliant-red wax droplets on the wing feathers, but this one in my hand is different.  Many birds change their plumage for the breeding season and then again for winter.  Goldfinches are one of the most common and distinctive examples of this.  Cedar waxwings, on the other hand, look the same all year round, and even males and females look virtually identical.  Only immature cedar waxwings during their very first summer and fall look any different.

One of the purposes of museum collections is to represent and preserve the diversity of nature.  Larger museums may have dozens of specimens of the same species representing various ages, sexes, seasons, and habitats.  These can be used for research and study.  While our tiny Museum doesn’t have the space to collect quite so extensively, we use our wide variety of specimens to help visitors with identification, and to illustrate concepts. 

So, although we already have two adult cedar waxwings preserved in our collection, this immature bird will be labeled with the date and location of its death, and stored in our salvage freezer.  This winter, Katie Connolly, the Museum Naturalist in charge of Collections, will mount it or preserve it as a study skin.  Watch our Calendar of Events for taxidermy observation days.

While we have the capacity (and the state and federal permits) to salvage dead animals for educational purposes, we still feel saddened and shamed that our windows cause so many deaths.  Millions of birds each year die in collisions with windows.  Some are just stunned, and if you hold them for a minute they may soon fly away.  Others, like my cedar waxwing, suffer brain trauma or break their neck.  The main issue is that windows reflect the trees, and birds try to fly right through them. 

There are several things you can try to keep birds from hitting your windows.  Window clings and silhouettes are somewhat effective, although you may need to attach them to the outside of the glass.  Dangling things in front of windows can also help.  We have pretty feather-shaped windsocks on our lower windows, but the not upper ones.  Shiny ribbon, mirrors, glass beads, old compact disks, and other pretty trinkets can be hung in front of windows.  Fine mesh netting can be stretched outside windows. This both reduces reflection and softens the impact.  Today I will spend time hanging more ribbons on our windows.

If a bird dies in a collision with your window and it is fresh and in good shape, you can call and ask us if we need it for our collection.  Then stick it in a plastic baggie in your freezer until you can bring it to the Museum. As long as you contact us, you will be covered under our permits until we make the transfer.  While the death of something wild and beautiful is always sad, knowing that it can be used to teach hundreds of people about nature and conservation makes it just a little less tragic.

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