In a time when the populations of many songbird species in our part of the world are declining, one happy exception to this is the elegant Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum). One of a family consisting of only three species worldwide, our Waxwing is a common breeding species at the edges of woods and in many other habitats with scattered trees, often near water.
The smooth, sleek plumage of this bird, which seems not to have a single feather out of place, ranges from a warm tannish-brown on its upperparts to a honey-yellow on the bird’s belly, and gray on its wings, tail and upper tail coverts. The head is adorned with a crest of feathers, similar in shape to the crest of a cardinal or titmouse, and a small black “mask” around the eye. The bill is black and relatively thin, with a slight downward hook at the end of the upper mandible. The tail has a colorful band at its end, usually yellow, but the most striking feature of its plumage is a series of small, bright red, waxy blobs at the ends of the secondary flight feathers (hence the name “waxwing”). Their purpose is unknown, but biologists speculate they may play a role of some sort in mate selection, which seems to be the generic fallback explanation of the biologist for any puzzling characteristic of any organism.
The call, heard year-round, is a quiet, high-pitched, insect-like “zeeee” often given in flight as well as from a perch.
Waxwings spend most of the year in flocks, roaming around nomadically in search of berries. While watching a feeding flock, one can often observe their rather charming habit of passing berries to one another, bill to bill. Their breeding biology is closely tied to their frugivorous habits; though present in the northeastern United States year ‘round, waxwings do not start to nest until about early June, timing the hatching of their young to coincide with summer-ripening berries.
Their diet may be one reason Cedar Waxwings have increased considerably in the past forty years or so. One of the few good ecological effects of increasing suburbanization is that the planted ornamental fruit-bearing shrubs and trees it often brings with it provide an abundant food source for waxwings. This species was named for its close association with the Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) whose small bluish fruits are still a major food source for waxwings, especially in winter. But small crabapples and the fruits of other ornamentals are increasingly becoming important parts of this bird’s foraging routine. One strange effect of this has been a change in the plumage of some Cedar Waxwings. Normally, there is a yellow band at the end of the tail, but some waxwings now have bright orange tail bands instead. This plumage variant, unrecorded before 1950, is apparently caused by eating the berries of the Morrow Honeysuckle (Lonicera morrowii), an exotic shrub often planted as an ornamental.
The Cedar Waxwing’s whispered, peaceful calls and the understated beauty of its attire make a refined, subtle counterpoint to the showier plumages and bolder sounds vying for the birder’s attention.
Cedar Waxwings love to gorge themselves on berries. Plant berry-bearing shrubs and trees to entice them to your yard.