Thursday, February 10, 2011

"Which Of These Things Is Not Like The Others? Which Of These Things Isn't The Same?" Waxwings, Crossbills & Siskins

Bohemian waxwings gorging on crab apples
Cedar and Bohemian waxwings. Can you pick out which are which?
The Cedar waxwings in this photo are numbered so you can find them amongst the Bohemian waxwings. Cedars are slightly smaller. If you look under their tails, they are white. Bohemians have reddish coverts and less white around the face than Cedars.

In this collage, there are 105 birds.  Nine of them are Cedar waxwings. Double click on the collage to make it bigger, then see if you can pick out the nine birds that are different. The photo is repeated with numbers by the Cedar waxwings.

The photo on the right is of a Cedar waxwing. The image clearly shows the 'wax' tips of the primary feathers.
White-winged crossbills bickering with a Pine siskin over feeder rights, or maybe they are going to get it on!

     When I was a kid, I loved Highlights Magazine. The 'picture in a picture' puzzles fascinated me. I felt like they were made especially for me to figure out. How fast could I find a key hidden amongst a tree full of toucans or a shoe in the shapes of a leopard's spots? First published in 1946, the magazine is still going strong today. I read my first Highlights Magazine in Boston in 1964.
      I was a sickly child, so spent a lot of time in waiting rooms of doctors' offices. The year that I was nine, I was hospitalized several times with protracted fevers that medicine could neither remedy nor explain. For months, my temperature sky-rocketed then plummeted over and over again inexplicably. By the time I learned "Fever Of Unknown Origin," I had lost enough time from school that my academic progress was cause for concern.
     Monstrous ear aches kept me awake, moaning and rocking myself back and forth, alone in a quiet house where everyone else was sleeping. After a while, I quit crying because it just made my head hurt more. I stared into space waiting for the sun to come up, for sleep, for whatever until it was gone. Between bouts, I was weak and tired. My exhausted parents were frightened, the doctors worried. When the earaches stopped, the fevers continued.
     The first time I was hospitalized was in the middle of the night. I was in an isolation ward with babies in steel cribs with cages over the tops so they couldn't get out. Some of the babies could stand up. They'd hold onto the bars and jounce up and down, screaming until they were too exhausted to keep it up. They'd collapse in a heap of soggy diapers and sleep for a while, only to start up again the second they woke. No one came.
   The doctors wanted my blood when the fevers were in full swing. In the middle of the night, they'd wake me up to draw my blood. Dr. Lacey wore a white coat and had warm hands. "Count backwards from one hundred, Robin. Can you do that for me? Just start counting," he'd say. I watched the blood from the needle in my arm meander along a little tube into a vial, then another vile, and then a third. "ninety-eight, ninety-seven, ninety-six...." I whispered under my breath. This would go on for a week, then I'd go home. Before I was strong enough to go back to school, the fevers would start again, and back to the hospital I would go. I was always the same, though each time, the screaming babies were different.
     Eventually, I was sent to Peter Brent Brigham Hospital in Boston for two weeks. My family couldn't stay with me, so I was there alone. Tests were done, things that hurt and things a little girl shouldn't have to know about. I knew not to complain, not to cry, to be brave. I walked the halls of the old hospital staring up at the tallest ceilings I had ever seen. An occupational therapist was called to stave off my boredom. She taught me to hammer sheet copper. I hammered three daffodils nodding in the sun.
    For no good reason, the fevers stopped and stopped for good. In the mean time, I had read loads of Highlights Magazines. I particularly liked the puzzles where the reader had to pick out the one thing in the picture that was different from all the rest. I  became lightening fast at it, a skill that would serve me well as a birder in later years. I learned about big cats in Africa, penguins at the Arctic circle, Right whales in the sea,  and more. Those were the formative days of my eventual obsession with the natural world.
     All sentient creatures have the ability to discriminate. Our survival depends on being able to tell what plants are food or poison, if something is too hot to handle or a crevice too wide to jump. We get it right enough that we don't walk off cliffs or eat deadly mushrooms too often. Animals also use these skills for finding mates. In the case of waxwings, the red, 'wax' tips on the primary feathers are believed to signal the age of a bird. Younger birds that haven't had as much experience mating, nest building, laying eggs and rearing young have fewer wax tips than older, more street smart birds. Waxwings side hop when courting, suggesting that it's all the better to see the wax tips with. This seems simple enough, but mate picking is knotty business.
    We humans have more gaps in our understanding about what makes birds choose one another than we have solid science. To our eyes, the waxwings in the group photos above look so much alike, that unless we are looking for a difference, they all look the same. Though I have searched extensively, I have not found one single reference to reports of hybridization of Bohemian and Cedar waxwings. Logically, we would say that the birds can pick out subtle differences. But this is where it gets tricky: in spite of their powers of discrimination, there are birds that crossbreed readily. Mallards and American black ducks, Common and Barrow's goldeneyes,  and mergansers are some that do. It's not common, but it's not rare, either. In the 1980's there was a chick documented that was progeny of a Pine siskin and a Red crossbill, two birds of different species which look distinctly different by anyone's standards. The DNA of the chick was traced by ornithologists verifying its parentage [1]. Who'd a thunk it? This is one more reason to practice the adage of birders to "look at every bird." You might be the first to see the picture in the picture, the one that's not like the others. Keep reading your Highlights Magazines cover to cover.
 1. Tudge, C.  "Keeping Track: The Absolute Need To Classify," The Bird (2008), New York: Crown Publishers (2008), p77


  1. It's amazing Robin, how events in our childhood, good and bad shape the adults we become. Does a child that is bullied become a bully or is she doomed to a life of being picked upon. Over time can this part of a personality be changed? For that matter, can waxwing learn to be something he's not? Are bird personalities more hard wired than that of humans? See what your posts do to me. The mind just keeps wandering and all because of you

  2. AnnieO, thank you. As long as your mind is wandering but not floundering, then that's a good thing! It's great that my writing provokes thinking of most any kind.

  3. Dee Belanger commented on your post in Birders who Blog, Tweet and Chirp.
    Dee Belanger 5:00pm Feb 10

    Really interesting!!

  4. thank you, Dee! I thought it was interesting, too. Not your usual birding post, eh?

  5. Hi Robin..Now that was interesting.. for one thing I did not know about the wax tips on the primary colors !! Good illustration of the difference between the two types!
    Highlight magazine was in ever Pediatrician office I think, and it seems you made good use of them!!
    You had quite a go of it there for awhile!!
    Can the next quiz be and open book one!! lol

  6. Grammie G, thank you. My next test will be THE FINAL EXAM, so everybody get your affairs in order, perhaps have one last cigarette. Blindfolds are optional. Ha!

  7. Jd Freeflight commented on your link.
    Jd wrote: "Great Blog entry Robin, it made me feel so much for a child and think so much about how birds conduct mate selection! What about rough-legged hawk X swainson's hybrids?"

  8. Good Morning, Robin! I always come away with something to turn over in my mind, not only relating to birds. Children's Activities had the puzzle pictures also and were an earlier production, and before that, St. Nicholas magazine for those young in the early part of the 20th century, saved under the eaves of my grandmother's house from my mother's day - good on a rainy summer day though the print was small and the contrast rather lacking as the paper had browned. liz

  9. Ya! And what about those Baltimore X Bullock's orioles? Huh? What about 'em? I'll be posting on that before too long as I've got one under review with Maine's rare bird alert committee. Begs the question, "Who's yo daddy?" Liz, interesting about the other magazines. It's such a compliment to me that people are 'left with something to turn over' after reading my posts. I appreciate very much the time you all take to read and comment.

  10. Robin, you really got me intrigued with your medical story. Did they ever come up with a diagnosis? Sounds like a blood parasite to me. The photo of the waxwing is of a bird that flew into your window? Anyway I enjoyed your post, lots of new info, well presented, as always.

  11. Thank you, Hilke. I wondered if this would peak your curiosity. No Dx was ever made. When I went to Boston, at the time that hospital was the leading place to go for juvenile rhuematoid arthritis. Utlimately, years later it was decided that was not what I had. No parasites, infectious processes or anything were ever found. I have since been in the Peace Corps and may be a carrier of Mal de Chagas! Doesn't that just figure?
    Yes, the Cedar was a window strike, unfortunately.

  12. HI Robin,
    You have q wonderful blog. Thanks for stopping by on mine, I could then discover yours.. I'll come back for sure and I can see you got as many bohemian waxwing as we got. Unfortunately, we never get cedar!

  13. Thank you, Chris, glad you like it. And, just for that, I'll send you a Cedar or two. How's that?

  14. Robin, Those Waxwing shots are awesome! Far better than the pathetic ones I am about to post on my blog!

  15. Thanks, Fleetwood Birder! I got a mess of shots of a mixed flock of Bohemians, Cedars and American robins today! Two waxwing species were pretty well split for numbers, too. I'll post those before long. And,I'll be looking for yours, too.

  16. A Wonderful essay, Robin! Really cool. But I just wanted to pick up that little Robin with the fevers and hold her in my arms. How brave you were, alone in the hospital. My mother was a social worker in that hospital and you would have liked her. But I think she left a few years earlier than when you were there. Were the mysterious fevers ever solved? I loved the photo of the waxwings looking like leaves on the tree. It was exquisite. Thanks again Robin, for sharing your words and vision.Love,Jo

  17. The Waxwings adorn the tree branches so beautifully! Your childhood reflection saddened me that you experienced so much discomfort without ever finding out the cause of your fevers...thank goodness they disappeared. As for the Highlight Magazines giving you so much joy, I subscribed to them during my entire teaching career for my student classroom library...always a hit!

  18. The first and second shot are just great. Well done.
    February 16, 2011 06:17 PM