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Thread: Cedar Waxwings: Beautiful Birds of Mystery

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    Post Cedar Waxwings: Beautiful Birds of Mystery

    Cedar Waxwing on Pyracantha

    Waxwings are Wild
    Wild creatures must remain free

    by Douglas Dunn




    Cedar Waxwing foursome Waxwings are beautiful birds of mystery -- masked bandits raiding fruit from forests and orchards or snatching unsuspecting insects -- with unpredictable patterns of movement and migration and fascinating rituals of social interaction, gluttonous "drunken" revelry and tender, gentle food sharing. They are also creatures that need to be wild and free.

    In North America there are only two species of waxwings: the Cedar Waxwing (scientific name: bombycilla cedrorum; Spanish: Ampelis Americano or Ampelis Chinito; French: Jaseur des cèdres or Jaseur d'Amerique) is the more common, but is found only in this continent while the Bohemian Waxwing (scientific name: bombycilla garrulus; Spanish: Ampelis Europeo; French: Jaseur boréal), more rare in this hemisphere, is common in the Northern latitudes throughout Europe and Asia, from the British Isles to Siberia. A third species, the Japanese Waxwing (bombycilla japonica), lives only in Asia.


    Appearance: smooth, silky plumage, with "bandit mask" and wax-like droplets on tips of secondary flight feathers. Waxwings are small birds, but not tiny. The Cedar Waxwing is between the size of a sparrow and a robin; the Bohemian Waxwing is slightly larger and more grayish than the cinnamon-brown Cedar Waxwing; the Bohemian also has a pattern of black, yellow and white on its wings which the Cedar is lacking, and the undertail coverts of the Bohemian are rust colored while those of the Cedar are white. When viewed at a distance, Waxwings offer two distinct profiles: when flying and moving about they are sleek and lovely; right after feeding (gorging themselves) they have a more plump or squat appearance ... fat and contented. The waxwing head is adorned with a sleek crest; waxwings are the only brown crested birds. The crest lays flat or elevates to show contentment or fear/agitation. Males and females have a similar appearance and it is generally difficult to tell them apart by sight.

    Habitat: Preferred habitat is open woodland (such as that found in many parklands or at the edges of forests), with proximate access to running water and food sources. Examples of ideal sites would include parks, golf courses, landscaped commercial/industrial/apartment properties, college campuses, gardens and cemeteries that have berry plants used as ornamentals and ponds or creeks to supply water for bathing and drinking.

    Identification: Watch for identifying "appearance" features described above, but also for flock movement patterns. Despite moving in large numbers, waxwings flocked in trees or shrubs blend in with the foliage and may be difficult to spot. Key to finding them is to locate likely habitats for the season, and then listening for their distinctive call (sample can be found at: http://birds.cornell.edu/BOW/CEDWAX/).


    When surrounded by a large flock, the sound echoes gently from all directions. Other keys are to watch for movements of the flock in flight.
    Waxwings can be observed in several flight patterns: when the flock is perched in a tree or shrub, birds may be locally active individually or in small groups, in a smooth, graceful, fluttering flight movement, often hovering briefly, especially when engaging in flycatching behavior. When the flock moves together to a new area, the movement can either be in a shimmering, fluttering group movement with frequent changes of direction (with all the birds in unison, in a pattern that resembles the movement of flocks of starlings), or a tight, fast formation as the birds glide very quickly toward a specific destination, again in unison. Rarely one might spot a small number of waxwings moving together without the tight, synchronized harmony that is usually seen.

    Migration: flock movement is in a nomadic, unpredictable migration within general annual trends: waxwings are opportunistic feeders who move following the food supply. As they roam areas, they may stay in one place that provides a supply of berries and flowing water for a few days or a few weeks, then after they have been seen every day in great quantities, all of a sudden they just seem to disappear without warning. Even while they are continuing to frequent a site over a period of days, within that time they still move among various sites throughout the day -- they may be seen at a particular time several times during the day in large numbers, small numbers, or not at all as the flock forages among several sites.

    Diet: mostly fruits (85%-90%) and insects, especially insect pests. Fruits include primarily berries such as cherries, mulberries, elderberries, grapes, blackberries, blueberries and, during winter travels, toyon and pyracantha (firethorn). They also eat the fruits of date palms and the blossoms of various tree species. Heavy reliance on a predominantly fruit diet generates a strong thirst and these birds also require a ready water supply.

    Except during the mating seasons, when they set up nesting pairs (though several pairs may be in relatively close proximity to each other), waxwings travel in large flocks. They are highly social birds.

    While they are prodigious feeders, taking advantage of uncertain food supplies, their social structure leads to certain feeding rituals. One of the unusual traits that waxwings are well known for is their social feeding, in which birds will share food. Most commonly, this is done as a mating ritual in which one bird (usually the male) will bring an offering of food (such as a berry, insect or flower petal) to the other. The receiver will accept the gift, hop away to one side, then hop back and give the food back. They will exchange the food back and forth numerous times before one of them (usually the female) actually eats it. This is a ritual I have personally observed a number of times. More rarely reported in others' accounts, and which I have not personally observed, is the ritual of social feeding in which one bird will pluck a berry and, instead of swallowing it, pass it beak-to-beak to the next bird, who will do the same, down and back along a row of birds sitting on a branch or wire. Finally one bird will eat the fruit and they'll do it again, until eventually they just descend on the fruit source and strip it cleanor begin their more typical pattern of shuttling back and forth from a "staging area" to their food source.

    Even this more common feeding ritual, more typical of their everyday behavior, reflects their social cooperation and sharing which is so different from other flock birds who may band together for their common interest in finding food or protection but will compete vigorously for the food they find. In contrast, waxwings will move about in flocks, and locate food sources where there is plenty of supply for the whole flock. Many times, they will settle into the upper branches of a tall tree near the food source, sort of as a staging area for their feeding operations. Then five or ten birds will shuttle down to the source of the berries, followed shortly by another five or ten birds, and so on, with the flock taking turns or rotating in and out of the food source sequentially and orderly instead of the chaotic competition so common to other bird species. A similar pattern of taking turns in groups is used for bathing when water sources are limited, such as to a bird bath or small puddle.


    Photo credit: Monte Lewis They eat in voracious quantities -- gorging in gluttonous revelry. On occasion, they will eat fruit that is overripe and eat in such quantities that they will become intoxicated, as reported by numerous observers. The famous artist and naturalist, John James Audubon, would sometimes catch specimens of waxwings for his art by finding them so drunk that they became unable to fly, and just walking out and picking them up. Between their intricate rituals of social feeding and sharing and their tendency to "drink" to intoxicating excess, one could truly call these the "party animals" of the bird world. [An alternative theory of waxwing "drunkenness" is that they as they store berries in the crop, the load may press against the carotid arteries, resulting in impairment or loss of consciousness; however, studies reported by Mark Witmer for Birds of North America evaluated metabolic alcohol processing in waxwings and determined their vulnerability to alcohol intoxication. There is no information as to whether or not they experience hangovers.]

    Like many other flock birds such as parrots, parakeets, pigeons/doves, crows/jays and others, their affinity for social interactions renders them relatively tame birds and they can sometimes be coaxed to the hand, especially during the breeding season when they are attracted by such nesting materials as soft string or burlap or other materials that they might not otherwise be able to find.

    When nesting they do not seem to be especially frightened of humans approaching the nest and (unlike other species) will even continue to care for their offspring that have been handled by human hands.



    As fruit eaters, with supplies from orchards often lasting into the fall harvests, waxwings are able to breed later in the season than most birds, and will sometimes produce two broods during the summer.

    Females primarily incubate the eggs while males bring food supplies but after eggs have hatched, both males and females take an active role in feeding and nurturing the young.

    When fall and winter approach and food supplies become thin (or out of season) they migrate in their unpredictable patterns out of the northern states and into most of the southwestern and southeastern states. (The Cedar Waxwing covers a wider range and in North America is more populous than the Bohemian Waxwing; however the Bohemian Waxwing is widespread throughout all of Europe and Asia; a third species, the Japanese Waxwing, is the most colorful of all the waxwings, and is found only in Japan.)

    Waxwings also require a steady water supply to quench the thirst that builds up from eating so much high-sugar fruit, and they often roost near water supplies. They also seem to enjoy splashing and bathing in shallow ponds and streams and those wishing to attract waxwings would do well to provide a birdbath or shallow waterfall along with food supplies of berries.

    Close Encounter With Wild Waxwings
    One winter morning when I was a college student (back in February of 1969) I had a job on campus working as a groundskeeper for the dorms. Early one morning as I was out picking up trash, I saw the movement of a tiny brownish creature flopping about in a nearby bush. I could quickly see that it was a bird, and then ... a waxwing! Working in the rocky mountains, where waxwings were not common winter visitors, it was a rare treat. But I had read enough about waxwings to know that they are not solitary birds; if one is around, especially in winter when they are not in nesting pairs, there should be a lot more! I also knew what foods would be appropriate and made sure I had plenty of fresh fruits to serve.

    I also noticed that, once this little fella realized I had spotted it (male and females waxwings have similar appearance so hard to tell which it was), it began flapping around trying to get away. But it did not fly and did not get very far. I could quickly see that it had an injured wing, so I scooped it up protectively and took it to my car and, living nearby, drove home and set it loose in my room (I had an old parakeet cage, but didn't want to confine a wild bird accustomed to freedom in such a small space).

    I hurried back to work and quickly came across a flock of waxwings lined up along the branches of one of the trees near the dorms. So I knew that this injured bird I had found had, in fact, traveled with its flock but had become injured and separated from its companions. I also knew that since waxwings move quickly and unpredictably, following uncertain food supplies (especially in winter), that I would have to monitor the flock and make sure to get this little fella back to its social environment before they moved on and left it behind.

    Each day as I worked, I monitored the flock, while back at my room I nursed my little visitor back to health. This little bird was very tame, as is also reported of waxwings by others, but I sensed a feeling of loneliness as it missed its companions.

    Within a couple of days, I found another member of the large flock flapping helplessly within the bushes and brought it home to share a room in the bird hospital with its buddy. The first bird was already improving physically, and this highly social creature seemed to perk up with the arrival of a companion. Both birds continued to be tame and friendly and did not make any effort to avoid me once they realized I was caring for them, bringing them food and would do them no harm.

    Each day as I worked I continued to monitor the flock, concerned that they might move on before I could return healthy companions. I knew that they would not stay long, but could not predict when they would move on. Meanwhile, the two birds in my room continued to improve and gain strength, and were soon flying around the room, though still showing no particular fear of me nor any effort to avoid me.

    Although the birds were tame, I never considered keeping them as pets. I knew they were wild and free and had lived their entire lives free to wander open spaces with their flock. It was always my intent to repatriate them to their own natural community, but my biggest concern was that the flock would move on before they were ready or that I might set them free before they were strong enough to care for themselves.

    At the earliest possible time, when I felt that they might not be fully up to 100% but were likely well enough to be joined to their flock, I once again put them in my car and drove around to where I found the flock. One by one, I took the birds in my hand and tossed them toward their flock. They fluttered and flew up into the branches where they were welcomed by their friends. While their flight was not as confident as I might have liked, I felt comfortable that they were well enough to join their peers and that they would continue to heal faster in the social bonds they were most comfortable with.

    A few days later, the flock moved on and my little friends were gone.



    Since that time, I have enjoyed hundreds of sightings of wild waxwings.

    The Meaning of Waxwings
    Birds are not humans, and it is a mistake to try and make them represent human values. But in a purely symbolic manner, we can metaphorically use some of the waxwing traits to demonstrate certain human ideals:

    Social harmony and sharing: Waxwings move and behave in large flocks, and maintain complex social rituals such as their ceremonious berry-passing and their smooth, graceful "synchronized" flight formations -- some writers note that they at times they even appear to face in the same direction. These highly social creatures seem to bring an easy gracefulness to their complex social structures, and interact with each other gently and in peaceful harmony, without the displays of dominance and bullying that often characterize large social systems. While the young of many bird species squabble competitively over incoming food brought by parents, even fledgling waxwings begin "practicing" their unusual sharing rituals before they have even fledged.

    Gender equality: In many bird species, males and females are highly differentiated. Males may display brighter and more colorful plumage and females may be physically larger in size. Males may also play a dominant role in the "pecking order" (literally -- avian hierarchies is where that term comes from) while females play the dominant role in nurturing the young. In waxwings it is different. Males and females are extremely similar in size and appearance. Despite large and complex social structures, there are not reports of dominance by specific individuals. And both males and females share in feeding and nurturing their young to a degree rare among bird species.

    Harmony with nature: The main component of the waxwing diet is fruits. As berries are devoured, the fruit is digested but the seeds are not. As the waxwings fly around, they spread seeds to other areas of favored habitats (the ones they move among), and thus assist in plant reproduction (unlike seed-eaters who actually digest and thus destroy the seeds). They do not take from the environment without giving back far more than what they take. The secondary component of their diet is insects, and among those most targeted are those which are harmful to plants.

    Partying: Lest anyone think these birds too saintly, as their dainty rituals of food sharing give way to gluttonous feasting and drunken bacchanals from consuming overripe fruit, we see that these birds are not only social and harmonious, but also gregarious party-goers! It makes us wonder if any of the researchers have made any effort to determine if waxwings enjoy this drunken revelry and if they suffer from morning-after hangovers! Their mysterious and unpredictable comings and goings as they move in irregular seasonal migrations as well as their frequent wanderings throughout the day make them all the more intriguing.

    Birding resources in North San Diego County, California
    San Diego Bird List: online discussion group for San Diego County birders:
    http://www.egroups.com/community/SDBIRDS.

    Buena Vista Audubon Society -- 2202 South Coast Highway (P.O. Box 480), Oceanside, California 92049. Phone: 760/439-BIRD (2473).
    Local chapter of the national Audubon Society for Oceanside and Carlsbad (North County Coastal). Premises includes excellent visitors center (no admission charge, but donatins gratefully accepted) with extensive collection of taxidermy created from many species of local birds and other wildlife.
    Website: http://www.audubon.org/chapter/ca/buenavista.

    Palomar Audubon Society -- P.O. Box 2483, Escondido, California 92033. Phone: 858/487-4831.
    Local chapter of the national Audubon Society for Escondido (North County Inland).
    Website: http://palomaraudubonsociety.homestead.com/index.html.

    The Birdwatcher -- 2775 "B" Street, P.O. Box 388, Julian. Phone: 760/765-1817. http://www.the-birdwatcher.com/
    This is a large, lovely shop filled with excellent resources for birders or those who wish to attract birds to their yards, including books, maps, supplies, knick-knacks, feeders and feed, and just about anything else you can think of. A birder's dream come true.

    Wild Birds Unlimited -- 2624 El Camino real, Carlsbad. Phone: 760/720-1906. http://stores.wbu.com/carlsbad.
    Attractive shop with feeders, bird seed, books and garden supplies for those wishing to attract wild birds to their yards.

    Wild Bird Center -- 1283 Encinitas Blvd., Encinitas (Henry's/McDonald's Shopping Center). Phone: 760/334-6001.
    Attractive shop with feeders, bird seed, books, birding equipment and garden supplies for those wishing to attract wild birds to their yards.

    Waxwing Videos (Free)
    [Requires version 3 or higher of QuickTime plug-in for Mac or Windows -- can be downloaded free at: http://www.apple.com/quicktime/download/index.html]
    Free Video 1 -- Waxwings feasting on berries

    Video footage by Douglas Dunn
    Click here or on picture to view or download a free (recently taken) 20-second video (1.1MB) of waxwings in a frenzy of feeding on berries. Free Video 2 -- Waxwings splashing in water

    Video footage by Douglas Dunn and Thelma Mantos Dunn
    Click here or on picture to view or download a free 15-second video (1.5MB) of waxwings drinking, splashing and frolicking in a creek.

    [Both of these videos require version 3 or higher of QuickTime plug-in for Mac or Windows -- can be downloaded free at: http://www.apple.com/quicktime/download/index.html]

    Waxwings in San Diego County, California
    Cedar Waxwings are most common in the Northeast United States, ranging from Minnesota to Maine, where they are year-round residents in substantial quantities, as well as in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Bohemian Waxwings are most common in the Rocky Mountain states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, with some wanderings into Utah; they are also numerous throughout western Canada. As the weather turns cold in fall and berries go out of season, with increased competition for limited food supplies, many Cedar Waxwings move south. Where I live, in Oceanside (a community in the North part of San Diego County), Cedar Waxwings are not present during the summer months and are not known to breed in this area. In winter and spring, however, they can be seen around the county in habitats that provide an attractive environment of open woodland with access to water and winter-berrying plants such as pyracantha, toyon and cotoneaster. Ideal sites would include parks, golf courses, landscaped commercial/industrial/apartment properties, college campuses, gardens and cemeteries that have berry plants used as ornamentals and ponds or creeks to supply water for bathing and drinking. Bohemian Waxwings have been sighted in this area only with extreme rarity, but Cedar Waxwings can often be seen in San Diego County from October through May in appropriate habitat environments.

    Waxwings are contantly on the move, visiting a variety of sites each day, so even when they are regularly visiting an active site, one still might not see the birds at a specific site depending on whether or not the observer happens to be there at the same time the flock is present.

    Some recommended sites for viewing Cedar Waxwings in San Diego County:
    It should be remembered that even at suggested sites where waxwings are frequent visitors, and even in an irruption year, Cedar Waxwing movements throughout the day are highly variable. At one time of the morning there may be hundreds of birds, an hour later only 10-20, and two hours after that none at all, with hundreds more showing up again later in the afternoon; the next day the times they are at the site may be completely different. Or the waxwings may have been there last month and will return again next month, but might not be there at all for several days in a row. In looking for waxwings at these sites, the key to finding them is to check at various times of day and keep returning throughout the season. Also it is important to listen for their distinct high-pitched call or the movement of a flock in their distinct tight-formation flight; once they settle into the trees they often hide among the leaves and, despite their various colors and large numbers, they may not be immediately obvious. Here are some of my recommendations for where to look for Cedar Waxwings from October through May ... as I live in the North part of the County, my suggestions naturally are weighted in that direction.

    Kit Carson Park, Escondido
    Cedar Waxwings are found throughout the north picnic area across from the elementary school, often moving among the sycamores, palms and other trees, and frequently splashing, drinking and bathing in the creek. They may be in various areas of the picnic area; when they are present in large numbers they may be in numerous parts of the picnic area at the same time. This is one of the most consistenly reliable sites for finding waxwings, but if you come when they happen to be away, keep checking back.

    Guajome County Park, Oceanside
    Cedar Waxwings can be found in all areas of the part where there are trees, and especially in the areas where there are large stands of pyracantha or toyon. Some of the best areas are in the upper campground area, anywhere from the camping restrooms to the upper parking lot to the wedding gazebo, but especially in the area at the north side of the campground where there are numerous pyracantha and toyon plants. Waxwings also make occasional appearances in the south picnic area, where the pyracantha and toyon plants are located near the parking lot entrance; also can be found where the creek runs along Santa Fe Rd.

    Rancho Del Oro Community Park, Oceanside
    This very small neighborhood park is mostly a grassy playing field next to an elementary school, however along the west edge of the park facing College Avenue and the south edge of the park along Empresa Avenue are extensive spreads of cotoneaster on both sides of the street, with intermittent trees where Cedar Waxwings gather, often in very large numbers. Also, numerous sites in the surrounding residential neighborhood may also have pyracantha, toyon and cotoneaster that attracts the waxwings.

    Brengle Terrace Park, Vista
    This park has several pyracantha plants, and numerous stands of toyon in various areas of the park, but especially in the creek bed along the south end of the park. Cedar Waxwings may be found in any of these areas, but especially along the creek between the parking lot and the south side of the park.

    Stagecoach Park, Carlsbad
    This small neighborhood park in southeast Carlsbad has a shallow creek, open trees and sits across the street from a large patch of many cotoneaster plants. Cedar Waxwings can be frequent visitors, often in very large numbers.

    Oak Hill Memorial Park, Escondido
    This cemetery has water and pyracantha and lots of open trees, and Cedar Waxwings may be found in any area of the cemetery. The surrounding neighborhood, extending west from the cemetery to Orange Glen High School, also has many ornamental plants and date palms and if you don't find the waxwings in the cemetery, you may be able to find them nearby.

    El Camino Cemetery, Sorrento Mesa, San Diego
    Near the morturary and gift shop is a large field with many cedar (juniper) plants which are very attractive to waxwings. There is also a creek running alongside the cemetery and other decorative fountains and water sources.

    Mast Park, Santee
    Cedar Waxwings may show up in very large numbers right near the parking lot entrance, where there are large stands of cotoneaster and toyon plants and a creek for them, as well as date palms and numerous tall eucalyptus trees. This site has all the things waxwings want and it has not escaped their attention.

    Lindo Lake County Park, Lakeside
    Many reports of large Cedar Waxwing flocks, especially around the shallow stream at the far east side of the park that feeds into the lake.

    Julian Historic District
    This small historic rustic mountain village has several sites that attract waxwings, all within easy walking distance. Two of the best are the cemetery and the landscaping of Orchard Hill Country in with its generous growths of pyracantha, toyon and misteltoe.

    Palomar Mountain State Park
    Various areas of this mountain park have flowing water and growths of toyon that are attractive to waxwings.

    Greenwood Cemetery, San Diego
    Numerous reports of Cedar Waxwings in this cemetery.

    References -- for further reading and research
    Witmer, Mark C., Mountjoy, D. James, and Elliot, Lang. "Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla Cedrorum)." in The Birds of North America, Number 309 (Alan Poole and Frank Gill, editors.) The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C. 1997.

    Tyler, W.M. "Bombycilla Cedrorum: Cedar Waxwing" in Life Histories of North American Wagtails, Shrikes, Vireos and Their Allies. (Arthur Cleveland Bent, editor.) New York: Dover Publications: 1965 (Unedited reprint of: U.S. Government Printing Office: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museaum, Bulletin 197: 1950). pp.79-102

    Bent, Arthur Cleveland, editor. "Bombycilla Garrulus: Bohemian Waxwing" in Life Histories of North American Wagtails, Shrikes, Vireos and Their Allies. New York: Dover Publications: 1965 (Unedited reprint of: U.S. Government Printing Office: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museaum, Bulletin 197: 1950). pp.62-79.

    Stokes, Donald & Lillian. Guide to Bird Behavior, Volume 2. New York: Little, Brown &Company. 1983. (Cedar Waxwing, pp. 177-188)

    Sibley, David Allen. National Audubon Society: The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2000. (Waxwings: pp. 423.)

    Sibley, David, et. al, editors. National Audubon Society: The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2001. (Waxwings: pp. 485-487; waxwing article by Mark Witmer.)

    Martin, Alfred G. Hand-Taming Wild Birds at the Feeder. Brattleboro, VT: Alan C. Hood & Company. 1963. (Waxwings: pp 113-117)

    Leister, Mary. "Cedar Waxwings: Unpredictable Birds." BirdWatcher's Digest. November/December 1991 (Vol 14, No. 2). pp. 50-55.

    Iliff, Marshall J. "Identify Yourself: Waxwings -- Cedar versus Bohemian." BirdWatcher's Digest. October 2001 (Vol 24, No. 1). pp. 38-42.

    Copyright (c) 2000, 2002 Douglas Dunn / Word Wizards communications

    Links to other pages about waxwings:
    http://web2.si.edu/smbc/bom/cewa.htm -- Smithsonian waxwing page. Excellent info.
    http://www.ronausting.com/cedar.htm -- Great pictures, info and sounds of cedar waxwings.
    http://birds.cornell.edu/BOW/CEDWAX/ -- Cornell University -- great info and sound file from one of the world's premier ornithology institutions
    http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/fram...on/fs6190.html -- United States Geological Survey general info on cedar waxwings
    http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/htm...17/ra6190.html -- USGS summer (breeding) map for cedar waxwings
    http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/htm...22/ra6190.html -- USGS winter distribution map for cedar waxwings

    Link to Doug's Scrub Jay page: http://www.wordwiz72.com/bbird.html

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    Last edited by Frans_Jozef; Wednesday, August 18th, 2004 at 06:48 PM.

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