Species Spotlight: Cedar Waxwings

Wednesday, August 28, 2019
Between their dazzling appearance, communal foraging habits, and entertaining antics, the Cedar Waxwing is one species that many birdwatchers fawn over each year. Flocks of these highly social birds are often heard before seen, and catch the attention of anyone within hearing range of their high-pitched trill. Due to their nomadic nature, locating Cedar Waxwings can be tricky even for an experienced birder, but learning about their habits and preferred food sources can certainly aid in tracking down this unique species.

Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) feasting on crab apples.
What they look like
Cedar Waxwings could be considered fashinoistas of the bird world with their exquisitely polished looks. Atop their head sits a distinctive crest, and their faces are sharply masked in black lined with white, with a pointed black bill & black extending partly down the throat. They are draped in cinnamon-coloured plumage from head to chest, fading in to buttery-yellow on the belly, and grey tail with a vivid yellow tip. The pièce de résistance - their remarkable wings - are a chic grey with dramatic red waxy tips that extend from the secondary feathers and increase in number and size as the bird matures. Cedar Waxwings are highly monomorphic with subtle differences in plumage between males and females. Males will typically show more extensive black colouring on the throat, but this is variable and is not always an accurate method of determining sexes.

Cedar Waxwing range map courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Where they can be found
Cedar Waxwings are found coast-to-coast in Canada, with their breeding range spanning to northerly points of most of the provinces they inhabit. Their habitat varies greatly and is highly dependent on available food sources. Waxwings can be found in woodlands, wetlands, open fields, residential areas, orchards, or anywhere fruiting plants grow. Though present year-round in some parts of Ontario, Cedar Waxwings tend to congregate in high volumes in the fall and winter months to feast on fruit-bearing trees and shrubs such as Mountain Ash, honeysuckle, and crab apple varieties. During breeding season, watch closely for their courtship display which includes a pair passing something (usually a berry) back and forth to each other.

Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) feeding on honeysuckle berries.
Photo provided by Ann Brokelman
What they like to eat
If you've ever had the pleasure of watching a "museum" (term for flock) of dozens of Cedar Waxwings forage, you know that they are particularly fond of fruit. In fact, the "Cedar" in Cedar Waxwing comes from their habit of consuming copious amounts of juniper berries. These fruit connoisseurs move from one area to another year-round, in search of fruit-bearing trees and shrubs such as dogwood, serviceberry, crab apple, hawthorn, and honeysuckle. On occasion, some birds may be found on the ground unable to fly for a short period of time, from intoxication by eating fermented fruits. During nesting season, Cedar Waxwings eat and feed their newly hatched young protein-rich insects, switching to small berries after the first couple days of life.

How you can attract them to your yard
While they may not be a species you'll catch visiting your feeders, there are a few things you can do to help attract Cedar Waxwings to your yard.

  • Plant native fruit-bearing plants such as serviceberry, choke cherry, gooseberry, mountain ash, and currants. Not only will they enjoy the fruit, they'll also feed on insects present on and around the plants.
  • Set up a year-round water feature. Having a consistent water source in the warmer months is common practice for many backyard birders, but maintaining that water source over the winter when free-flowing water is in short supply can boost your chances of viewing Cedar Waxwings and other species who are not regular feeder visitors. The Wild Birds Unlimited Heated Bird Bath is designed to be used year-round, is easy to clean, and supports birds of all sizes.
  • No room to grow your own fruit-bearing plants? Try offering fruit on a tray or platform feeder! Some people have had success attracting Waxwings to their yard by offering raisins, currants, or apples on a tray or platform feeder. Worst-case scenario is you end up with a group of very happy backyard birds & critters enjoying the sweet buffet.
  • If you spread it they will come.. Bark Butter. Yes, even Cedar Waxwings have been seen indulging in a Bark Butter treat. If you've seen Waxwings in or near your yard, try spreading Bark Butter on trees or shrubs to draw them closer. 
  • During nesting season, Cedar Waxwings will use nesting material provided like our WBU Nest Building Material to aid in construction of their cup-like nest. Click here for a sweet photo of Waxwings collecting the nesting material.

     In order to save time constructing their own nest, Cedar Waxwings have been known to occasionally steal nesting materials from other species including Robins, Eastern Kingbirds, and Orioles.

Top: Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)  •  Bottom: Bohemian Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus)
Photos provided by Justin Hoffman
The other Waxwing in town
It's difficult to mistake a Cedar Waxwing for any other species in Canada, unless you're looking at their less common relative, the Bohemian Waxwing. Bohemian Waxwings are sometimes found mixed in large flocks of Cedar Waxwings, particularly in the fall and winter months when they are travelling together in search of fruit-laden trees. Bohemians exhibit similar behaviours to Cedars, and can be distinguished by their overall grey colouring (lacking the yellow belly of the Cedars), larger size, and white and yellow wing markings that are not present on Cedars.

Waxwings are sure to bring a giddy smile to your face each time you are fortunate enough to view them & observe their gluttonous behaviour. Enjoy those moments.. in the blink of an eye they'll be moved on to bigger and better things, er, berries. 😉

Happy trails!
- Shayna

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