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Cedar Waxwing

Bombycilla cedrorum ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: BOMBYCILLIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Cedar Waxwing Photo

A treat to find in your binocular viewfield, the Cedar Waxwing is a silky, shiny collection of brown, gray, and lemon-yellow, accented with a subdued crest, rakish black mask, and brilliant-red wax droplets on the wing feathers. In fall these birds gather by the hundreds to eat berries, filling the air with their high, thin, whistles. In summer you’re as likely to find them flitting about over rivers in pursuit of flying insects, where they show off dazzling aeronautics for a forest bird.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
5.5–6.7 in
14–17 cm
Wingspan
8.7–11.8 in
22–30 cm
Weight
1.1 oz
32 g
Relative Size
Slightly smaller than a Bohemian Waxwing
Other Names
  • Ampelis Americano, Picotera, Chinito (Spanish)
  • Jaseur d' Amérique (French)

Cool Facts

  • The name "waxwing" comes from the waxy red secretions found on the tips of the secondaries of some birds. The exact function of these tips is not known, but they may help attract mates.
  • Cedar Waxwings with orange instead of yellow tail tips began appearing in the northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada in the 1960s. The orange color is the result of a red pigment picked up from the berries of an introduced species of honeysuckle. If a waxwing eats enough of the berries while it is growing a tail feather, the tip of the feather will be orange.
  • The Cedar Waxwing is one of the few North American birds that specializes in eating fruit. It can survive on fruit alone for several months. Brown-headed Cowbirds that are raised in Cedar Waxwing nests typically don’t survive, in part because the cowbird chicks can’t develop on such a high-fruit diet.
  • Many birds that eat a lot of fruit separate out the seeds and regurgitate them, but the Cedar Waxwing lets them pass right through. Scientists have used this trait to estimate how fast waxwings can digest fruits.
  • Because they eat so much fruit, Cedar Waxwings occasionally become intoxicated or even die when they run across overripe berries that have started to ferment and produce alcohol.
  • Building a nest takes a female Cedar Waxwing 5 to 6 days and may require more than 2,500 individual trips to the nest. They occasionally save time by taking nest materials from other birds’ nests, including nests of Eastern Kingbirds, Yellow-throated Vireos, orioles, robins, and Yellow Warblers.
  • The oldest known Cedar Waxwing was 8 years, 2 months old.

Habitat


Open Woodland

Cedar Waxwings inhabit deciduous, coniferous, and mixed woodlands, particularly areas along streams. You may also find them in old fields, grasslands, sagebrush, and even along desert washes. With the spread of ornamental berry trees in landscaping, Cedar Waxwings are increasingly common in towns and suburbs. In winter, Cedar Waxwings are most abundant around fruiting plants in open woodlands, parks, gardens, forest edges, and second-growth forests. Birds that winter in the tropics tend to inhabit highlands.

Food


Fruit

Cedar Waxwings feed mainly on fruits year-round. In summer, they feed on fruits such as serviceberry, strawberry, mulberry, dogwood, and raspberries. The birds’ name derives from their appetite for cedar berries in winter; they also eat mistletoe, madrone, juniper, mountain ash, honeysuckle, crabapple, hawthorn, and Russian olive fruits. In summer Cedar Waxwings supplement their fruit diet with protein-rich insects including mayflies, dragonflies, and stoneflies, often caught on the wing. They also pick items such as scale insects, spruce budworm, and leaf beetles directly from vegetation.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–6 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
0.6–1.1 in
1.6–2.9 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.7 in
1.4–1.8 cm
Incubation Period
11–13 days
Nestling Period
14–18 days
Egg Description
Pale blue or blue gray sometimes spotted with black or gray.
Condition at Hatching
Naked, blind, helpless, weak, and quiet. Hatchlings weigh about 3.1 grams, or a little more than one-tenth of an ounce.
Nest Description

Female waxwings do almost all the nest building; males may do some construction for the second nest of a season. The female weaves twigs, grasses, cattail down, blossoms, string, horsehair, and similar materials into a bulky cup about 5 inches across and 3 inches high. She lines this cup with fine roots, grasses, and pine needles and may decorate the outside with fruiting grasses or oak and hickory catkins. Construction takes 5 to 6 days and may require more than 2,500 individual trips to the nest. Waxwings occasionally save time by taking nest materials from other birds’ nests, including Eastern Kingbirds, Yellow-throated Vireos, orioles, robins, and Yellow Warblers.

Nest Placement

Tree

Cedar Waxwing pairs look for nest sites together, but the female makes the decision. She typically chooses the fork of a horizontal branch, anywhere from 3 to 50 feet high. Many tree species are used, including maples, pines, red cedar, white cedar, apple, pear, hawthorn, and bur oak. Sometimes waxwings put their nests in vertical forks, vine tangles, or resting on a single horizontal branch.

Cedar Waxwing Nest Image 1
© René Corado / WFVZ

Cedar Waxwing Nest Image 2
© René Corado / WFVZ

Behavior


Foliage Gleaner

Cedar Waxwings are social birds that form large flocks and often nest in loose clusters of a dozen or so nests. When feeding on fruits, Cedar Waxwings pluck them one by one and swallow the entire thing at once. They typically feed while perched on a twig, but they’re also good at grabbing berries while hovering briefly just below a bunch. When eating insects, waxwings either fly out from an exposed perch, or make long, zig-zagging flights over water. During courtship, males and females hop towards each other, alternating back and forth and sometimes touching their bills together. Males often pass a small item like a fruit, insect, or flower petal, to the female. After taking the fruit, the female usually hops away and then returns giving back the item to the male. They repeat this a few times until, typically, the female eats the gift. Cedar Waxwings have a strong, steady flight style with fairly constant wingbeats.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Between 1966 and 2010, Cedar Waxwing populations were estimated to be stable in Canada and slightly increasing in the United States according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 52 million, with 70 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., 55 percent in Canada, and 18 percent wintering in Mexico. They rate a 6 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. The increases in Cedar Waxwing populations are probably in part because of reversion of fields to shrublands and forests and the use of berry trees such as mountain ash in landscaping. Cedar Waxwings are vulnerable to window collisions as well as being struck by cars as the birds feed on fruiting trees along roadsides.

Credits

Range Map Help

Cedar Waxwing Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Short to long-distance migrant. Many eastern Cedar Waxwings winter in the southeastern U.S. Some birds travel as far south as Costa Rica and Panama.

Backyard Tips

Cedar Waxwings love fruit. To attract waxwings to your yard, plant native trees and shrubs that bear small fruits, such as dogwood, serviceberry, cedar, juniper, hawthorn, and winterberry.

Find This Bird

Cedar Waxwings are often heard before they’re seen, so learn their high-pitched call notes. Look for them low in berry bushes, high in evergreens, or along rivers and over ponds. Be sure to check big flocks of small birds: waxwings are similar to starlings in size and shape, and often form big unruly flocks that grow, shrink, divide, and rejoin like starling flocks.

Get Involved

Cedar Waxwings are a focal bird species for the Celebrate Urban Birds! project. Conduct a 10-minute count and record whether or not you see waxwings.

Help track the nomadic movements of Cedar Waxwings by reporting your sightings to eBird

Learn how to find and monitor bird nests for NestWatch

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