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Cedar Waxwing

(Bombycilla cedrorum)
May 2009 - Indianapolis, Indiana

General Information

Waxwings are sleek, crested birds that get their name from the bright red waxy terminal tips of their secondary flight feathers (see following photographs). Three species of Waxwings occur in the Northern Hemisphere. Two of these species, the Cedar and the Bohemian, occur in North America. The Bohemian is Holarctic, occurring in North America, Europe and Asia. The Cedar, however, occurs only in North America. The third, the Japanese Waxwing, occurs in southeastern Siberia, and winters in Japan and along the coast of China.

These birds, more than any other North American bird, are addicted to sugary fruits which they consume year round. Their digestive system is especially adapted to rapidly digest berries. In spring and summer, they add insects and flowers to their diet. Laboratory studies show that Waxwings feeding on the fruits of Viburnum must add protein-rich foods like Cottonwood catkins to their diet. If fed exclusively on either catkins or fruit, they lose weight (Gill 2007).

Highly nomadic, they are almost always seen in flocks. They do not defend territories, and so, unlike so many species of passerines, they do not sing. Their voice, however, is a high, thin lisp that may include a trill. An alert birder with good hearing will detect this sound when these birds are in the tree tops.

The Cedar Waxwing is a short distance migrant. They occur year round in the northern tier of States, and extend their range well into Canada during the breeding season. In winter months, they can be found in the southern states and well south to Panama in Central America.

 

The waxwing shows a distinct black face mask. When perched, a distinct crest is visible.

Cedar Waxwing
Figure 1 - Cedar Waxwing

 

Cedar Waxwing bill
Figure 2 - Cedar Waxwing bill

 

The waxwing bill is especially adapted for consuming their favorite diet of berries and fruits.

Upper parts show a soft elegant blend of browns and grays. Their silky smooth appearance is distinctive. Sexes appear similar, but careful examination of certain characteristics will enable one to distinguish males from females (see below).

Cedar Waxwing upper parts
Figure 3 - Cedar Waxwing upper parts

 

Cedar Waxwing chin
Figure 4 - Cedar Waxwing chin

 

The chin shows varying amounts of black depending on age and sex (Pyle 2001). Females have less black on the chin than males.

The bright red waxy tips of the secondary feathers of the Cedar Waxwing are unique to this group of birds. The function of these waxy tips is not known. The number and length of these red tips are useful to determine age and sex. Tips may be lacking in young birds, and are most developed in adult males (Pyle 2001). The tips are synthesized from carotenoid pigments in the diet (Alderfer 2006).

Waxwing feather tips
Figure 5 -Waxwing feather tips

 

Under tail coverts and tail feathers
Figure 6 - Under tail coverts and tail feathers.

 

Cedar Waxwing under tail coverts are white. This feature is useful to distinguish them from the Bohemian Waxwing that shows rufous under tail coverts.

This view of the lower back shows the upper tail coverts, tail and tips of the flight feathers. Note the yellow tips of the tail feathers.

Cedar Waxwing
Figure 7 -Cedar Waxwing

 

Cedar Waxwing
Figure 8 - Cedar Waxwing

 

The extent of yellow on the tips of the outer tail feathers is useful to determine the age and sex of the individual bird (Pyle 2001). Adult males show the greatest amount of yellow. Females and younger birds show less yellow. Some overlap occurs between adult males and females. The mix of bright yellow and the tapered washed-out tips on this individual indicate a young bird molting into its adult plumage.

Bird banding provides a unique opportunity to study wild birds up close. Each species has its own behavior characteristics, and each individual within a species has its own personality. This individual seemed comfortable in the hand, and remained there for several minutes before deciding to fly away.

Mary Studying a Waxwing
Figure 9 -Mary Studying a Waxwing

 

Breeding Biology

Cedar waxwings breed over a wide variety of habitats especially in woodlands and orchards. Both parents build a nest of twigs, dry grasses and lichens well out on a limb. Nesting may begin in June, but start dates vary depending on food availability. Two broods may be raised each year. The female broods the young, but since males sometimes develop a partial brood patch, they may assist in incubation. Young hatch in about two weeks, are attended by both parents, and fledge in 16-18 days (Baicich and Harrison1997).

Cedar Waxwings engage in an interesting ritual. Several birds will perch on a branch along side of each other and pass a berry back and forth up and down the line before one bird eats it. A mated pair will often pass a berry back and forth as part of their courtship.

Banding Recoveries

The records at the Bird Banding Laboratory show that more than 169,000 Cedar Waxwings were banded between 1914 and 2004. Of these, 1,271 have been encountered. Banding studies show that Cedar Waxwings can live more than 5 years in the wild. Captive birds have lived more than 8 years.

If you should recover a banded Cedar Waxwing, please report the band number to the Bird Banding Lab either by calling 1-800-327-BAND, or by completing the report form on their web site. Your report will add valuable information to what is known about this species.

Conservation

Cedar Waxwing populations appear to be holding steady or increasing. The waxwing preference for berries brings them into contact with human habitations where they suffer from collisions with cars, windows and from predation by cats. It is unfortunate that this lovely and gentle bird is not better known among the general public.

Further Reading

Alderfer, J., Ed. 2006. Complete Birds of North America. National Geographic. Washington, DC.664 Pp.

Baicich, P. J. and C. J. O. Harrison. 1997. A Guide to the Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds. 2nd Ed. Academic Press, Boston. 347 Pp.

Beaman, M. and S. Madge. 1998. The Handbook of Bird Identification for Europe and the Western Palearctic. Princeton University Press. Princeton, NJ. 868 Pp.

Flint, V. E., R. L Boehme, Y. V. Kostin, A. A. Kuznetosov. 1989. A Field Guide to the Birds of the USSR. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. 353 Pp.

Gill, F. B. 2007. Ornithology, 3rd edition. W. H. Freeman and Company, New York. 758 Pp.

Peterson, R. T. 2008. Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, New York, NY. 527 Pp.
Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds. Part I. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, CA. 731 Pp.

Terres, J. K. 1995. The National Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Wings Books, NY. 1,109 Pp.

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