Cedar Waxwing

Content for this page researched and created by Ashley Worlds

Cedar Waxwing Pair
Photo by Patty McGann

The Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) belongs to the family of Bombycillidae (McWilliams). With silky feathers and bilateral symmetry, the cedar waxwing is known for their colorful waxed tipped wings. They are adorned with grayish-brown feathers on most of their bodies with a yellow color on the breast and stomach and the secondary wings are tipped with red wax like spots. The tail is square with a bright yellow band at the end. The bird is characterized with a black mask with white on the edges.

Cedar waxwings are approximately fifteen and a half centimeters in length and weigh about thirty two grams (Klein) and have a wingspan of twenty two to thirty centimeters (Wildscreen). There are many characteristics that distinguish a female from a male. Males have a darker chin patch (Klein) and they have a broader tail tip (National Geographic). Immature females have the narrowest tail (National Geographic) and they are usually heavier (Klein). Banding studies have shown that the bird can live five years or more in the wild, according to the Chipper Woods Bird Observatory. One way for their age to be determined is by the amount of yellow on the tips of the tail feathers. The most yellow color is on adult males. Younger birds and females show less yellow (Chipper Woods).

Young Cedar Waxwing
Photo by Audrey

Cedar Waxwings are monogamous during each breeding season. The waxwings participate in a very interesting ritual in order to pick their mating partner. The male dances for the female and gives her either a fruit, flower, or insect. The female will pass it back and forth until she eats it if she agrees to be the mating partner. The female then chooses a nesting site and nest construction will begin (National Wildlife Federation).

Nests are built on straight limbs that are no more than fifty feet above the ground (McWilliams). They will select soft materials such as grasses, pine needles, hair, moss and strings for the inner layer and twigs for the outer layer of the nest. Construction takes up to five or six days to finish and requires more than 2,500 trips to the nest (Wildscreen). Nests are built in trees such hawthorns, white pines and apple. Waxwings prefer to nest in denser vegetation, which helps them avoid predation since waxwings do not have an aggressive defense style for their nests (Murphy and Cummings).

A clutch consists of four to five eggs that are incubated for twelve to fourteen days. Eggs are glossy, greyish blue with brown and grey spots (Wildscreen). Both the mother and the father feed the baby waxwings. The baby birds normally leave the nest between fourteen to eighteen days after hatching. Waxwings will usually have two nests a year (Audubon), starting the nesting process between June and August (Klein)

Rarely seen on the ground, the cedar waxwing moves around branches with quick little hops. The waxwing practices self-maintenance by cleaning feathers with its beak and stretching their wings. Waxwings are usually always seen in a flock, even during breeding season. They are very social species with the largest flocks during the winter. They are not territorial nor aggressive (Witmer, Mountjoy, and Elliot).  Together in a flock, they fly from place to place to find food. They normally prefer a wooded edge that has a source of water and berries (Cosley Zoo).  They also can be seen in open woodlands, hedgerows, suburban gardens, and orchards (Wildscreen). Cedar waxwings benefited from the harvesting of northern tolerant hardwood forest, partly because they prefer shrub like habitats (Holmes, Stephen B and Doug G. Pitt).

Cedar Waxwing Double Berry
Photo by Henry T. McLin

The waxwing survives mostly on the intake of berries and are considered one of the most frugivorous birds in America. Waxwings differ from birds who focus on a high protein diet. The fruit that they prefer are processed quickly in the gut. The enzyme responsible for digesting the sugary foods is sucrase-isomaltase (Witmer and Rio). They eat a variety of berries including juniper, dogwood, and wild cherries (Audubon). The amount of berries taken in will decrease in May, since the fruit crops tend to wither then.

In the winter, waxwings eat mostly cedar berries. When given a choice, the bird will eat smaller red or blue fruit and avoid green and yellow fruit. Waxwings can easily discern between differences of fruit and smaller sized fruit is preferred since handling is easier. Waxwings do not have a set choose of food. The eastern red cedar is the number one fruit preferred in field, but it was only fifth choice in the lab (McPherson).

Throughout the years, waxwings have relied on foreign and ornamental fruits, such as honeysuckles, for their diet (Witmer, Mountjoy, and Elliot). Waxwings that digest honeysuckle can have a change in tail feather color from yellow to orange. Lonicera morrowii, a foreign specific subspecies of honeysuckle, has increased over the years, increasing the cases of orange tail feathered waxwings (Witmer, The Auk). Waxwings will also eat flowers, sap, and insects, such as beetles and ants, however the intake of fruit is much more common. The Viburnum opulus, a flowering plant, is a high energy source for waxwings (Audubon). Protein rich pollen from this plant’s catkins help to maintain the waxwing’s body mass. The waxwing prefers V. opulus early in the season, possibly due to a higher water concentration within them or the brighter color in the spring (Witmer, Ecology).

Chicks will mostly eat insects first and then will turn to berries (Audubon). Flying in large flocks helps to find patches of berries quicker. If there is a big pile of berries at the end of a twig, a waxwing will pass a berry down the line so that each of them gets one (Cosley Zoo). When examining their digestion biology, it is seen that they store fruits in their gizzard in order to eat more at one time. Seeds and pulp are separated in the gizzard. Pulp then arrives into the intestines first but the seeds move quicker to the rectum. Pulp and seeds stay in the waxwing’s rectum for a while so that water and nutrient absorption can occur (Levey).

Cedar Waxwing Birds
Photo by Dzung Tran

In Pennsylvania, waxwings are found in the northern part of Pennsylvania (McWilliams), but breed throughout North America. Starting in eastern North America, they have traveled as far as the south- eastern coastal plains from South Carolina to Texas (Brugger). The waxwing will begin forming flocks in August and will typically arrive in Florida in October or early November. Some may reach Costa Rica usually in December and in Panama by January. The waxwing migrates southward with weather fronts or because of local depletion of fruits (Witmer, Mountjoy, and Elliot).

Waxwings begin migration back to the North in late May or early June. They are at their greatest distance from nesting sites in February (Brugger). Flocks vary in size during migratory period. Eastern and western may populations divide but some interchange does occur. Thirty to a hundred birds are common but flocks of thousands may also occur in fall and spring. They have been observed migrating during the day and night and may flock with different sub populations (Witmer, Mountjoy, and Elliot). Cedar waxwings are responsible for the seed dispersal of many plants in North America because of their wide ranges. One species is the Forestiera acuminate, a swamp privet drupe. Unlike other birds, waxwings defecate seeds which does not interfere with seed germination. Seed dispersal is large for the waxwing since some may keep seeds in their esophagus before digesting (Adams).

Placed under the least concern category, the cedar waxwings population has been increasing due to large ranges (Birdlife). When handled for banding, waxwings are described as relaxed and may stay still for several minutes before flying away. The waxwing will interact with human dwellings when searching for berries which leads to accidents with vehicles, windows, and cats (Chipper Woods Bird Observatory). The only known major threats include crashes with windows and cars and pesticide poisoning (Wildscreen). Another threat to waxwings is ethanol poisoning. Fruit may become fermented by yeasts, which can cause dangerous situations if the fruit ethanol content is high. Levels of ethanol found in deceased waxwings were at 260 to 1,000 ppm in the liver and intestine. Death from ethanol intoxication occurs when they are flying under the influence of ethanol and crash into windows or cars (Kinde).


General References

“Bombycilla Cedrorum.” Birdlife. Birdlife International, 2016, http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/species/factsheet/22708153

“Cedar Waxwing.” Audubon. National Audubon Society, 2016, http://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/cedar-waxwing.

“Cedar Waxingwing.” Chipper Woods Bird Observatory. Wild Birds Unlimited, 2009. http://www.wbu.com/chipperwoods/photos/cedarwaxwing.htm.

“Cedar Waxwing.” Cosley Zoo. Wheaton Park District, http://cosleyzoo.org/cedar-waxwing/

“Cedar Waxwing.” National Geographic, 2006, http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birding/cedar-waxwing.

“Cedar Waxing.” National Wildlife Federation, 2016, https://www.nwf.org/Wildlife/Wildlife-Library/Birds/Cedar-Waxwing.aspx.

“Cedar Waxwing.” Wildscreen Arkive. Wildscreen. http://www.arkive.org/cedar-waxwing/bombycilla-cedrorum/.

Klein, Laura. “Bombycilla Cedrorum.” Animal Diversity. University of Michigan, 2003, http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Bombycilla_cedrorum/.

McWilliams, Gerald M. and Daniel W. Brauning. “Family Bombycillidae: Waxwings.”  The Birds of Pennsylvania. Cornell University, 2000.

Witmer, M. C., D. J. Mountjoy and L. Elliot. “Cedar Waxwing.” The Birds of North America. Online Version. No. 309. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 14 Nov. 2014. http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/309/articles/priorities.

Scientific References

Adams, Susan B and Paul B Hamel. “Potential Roles of Fish, Birds, and Water in Swamp Privet (Forestiera acuminata) Seed Dispersal.” Southeastern Naturalist. , vol. 6 Issue 4, pp. 669-682, 2007. Environmental Sciences and Pollution Management. doi: 10.1656/1528-7092(2007)6[669:PROFBA]2.0.CO;2

Brugger, Kristin E, et al. “Migration patterns of cedar waxwings in the Eastern United States.” Journal of Field Ornithology. vol.65, issue 3, 1994, pp. 381-387. Environmental Sciences and Pollution Management. http://search.proquest.com/espm/docview/16993570/4FE08CE6B9B84916PQ/28?accountid=13158

Holmes, Stephen B and Doug G. Pitt. “Response of bird communities to selection harvesting in a northern tolerant hardwood forest.” Forest Ecology and Management. vol. 238, issue 1-3, pp. 280-292, 2007. Environmental Sciences and Pollution Management. doi: 10.1016/j.foreco.2006.10.022

Kinde, Hailu. “Strong circumstantial evidence for ethanol toxicosis in Cedar Waxwings (Bombycillacedrorum).” Journal of Ornithology. vol. 153, issue 3, Jul 2012, pp. 995-998. Biological Abstracts. doi: 10.1007/s10336-012-0858-7.

Levey, Douglas J.and Gary E. Duke. “How Do Frugivores Process Fruit? Gastrointestinal Transit and Glucose Absorption in Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum).” The Auk. vol. 109, no. 4, Oct.1992, pp. 722-730. Ecology Abstracts. doi: 10.2307/4088148.

McPherson, Jean M. “Preferences of Cedar Waxwings in the Laboratory for fruit species, colour and size.” Animal Behavior, vol. 36, no. 4,   August 1988, pp. 961-9. Science Direct. doi: 10.1016/S0003-3472(88)80054-X

Murphy, Michael T and Charity L. Cummings. “Comparative analysis of habitat selection, nest site and nest success by cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) and eastern kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus).”  American Midland Naturalist. vol. 138, issue 2, pp. 344-356, Oct. 1997.  Environmental Sciences and Pollution Management. http://search.proquest.com/espm/docview/16310268/4FE08CE6B9B84916PQ/21?accountid=13158

Witmer, Marc C. and Carlos Martinez Rio. “The Membrane-Bound Intestinal Enzymes of Waxwings and Thrushes: Adaptive and Functional Implications of Patterns of Enzyme Activity.” Physiological & Biochemical Zoology, vol. 74 Issue 4, pp. 584, July 2001. Wildlife and Ecology Studies Worldwide. http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail/detail?vid=7&sid=57fa48b8-b0a8-4519-91e3-4c297b147e20%40sessionmgr4008&hid=4207&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#db=fzh&AN=551829

Witmer, Mark C. “Consequences of an alien shrub on the plumage coloration and ecology of cedar waxwings.” The Auk. vol. 113, no. 4, pp. 735-743. Oct. 1996. Environmental Sciences and Pollution Management. doi: 10.2307/4088853

Witmer, Mark C. “Nutritional interactions and fruit removal: cedar waxwing consumption of Viburnum opulus fruits in spring.” Ecology, Vol. 82 Issue 11, pp. 3120, 2001. Wildlife and Ecology Studies Worldwide. http://web.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail/detail?vid=9&sid=57fa48b8-b0a8-4519-91e3-4c297b147e20%40sessionmgr4008&hid=4207&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#AN=231801999987687&db=fzh

Media Gallery

Flikr. Yahoo, 2012, https://www.flickr.com.

  1. Young Cedar Waxwing (Audrey) (Creative Commons)
  2. Cedar Waxwing Birds (Dzung Tran) (Creative Commons)
  3. Cedar Waxwing Double Berry (Henry T. McLin) (Creative Commons)
  4. Cedar Waxwings Pair (Patty McGann) (Creative Commons)