Sep 1, 2015 | Featured Web Article

Cedar Waxwings: Wandering Fruit Eaters

Cedar waxwings are nomads, going wherever the natural berry and fruit crops are plentiful. They occur in flocks at all times except during the late-spring breeding season.
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A beady, insect-like trill first alerts many bird watchers to the presence of cedar waxwings, as they tend to completely blend into the surrounding foliage. These wandering fruit eaters appear and disappear seemingly without rhyme or reason, descending to strip a tree of its fruits and then whirling off to parts unknown. Fermented fruits sometimes cause entire flocks of waxwings to stagger about on the ground until their intoxication wears off. Cedar waxwings travel in tight flocks to locate and feed on small fruits. They may be completely hidden in leaves as they flutter and pluck fruit, only to explode out with reedy calls and a rush of wings when startled. In late summer, they may be seen in twisting, dodging pursuits of winged insects over water. Waxwings get their name from the red secretions on the tips of their wing feathers, which look like shiny drops of sealing wax. Worldwide, there are only two other species of waxwing: the Bohemian and Japanese waxwings. Waxwings are related to silky flycatchers, a largely tropical family of birds.

How do I identify them? Overall, these birds are medium-sized (about 7 inches long), dressed in warm, brownish gray plumage, and have crests like cardinals and blue jays. "Sleek" is the word most often used to describe the silky fawn plumage of the cedar waxwing. A velvety black bandit mask hides the eyes, and a bright yellow band tips the gray tail. You may occasionally encounter a cedar waxwing with orange rather than yellow tail tips. This is caused by the bird's diet. When a young, developing waxwing eats the red fruit of certain honeysuckle species, it grows orange tail feathers.

Where can I find them? The cedar waxwing's only real habitat requirement is the presence of fruit-bearing trees and shrubs, so it can be found everywhere except grasslands, deserts, and deep interior forests. Thought to be nomadic, the species does make a poorly understood migration that takes it as far south as southern Central America. Cedar waxwings are most often seen in flocks in fall and winter.

What can I do to attract them? These birds are not likely to visit your bird feeders. Attracting cedar waxwings is best accomplished by planting the trees and shrubs they prefer—serviceberry, hawthorn, firethorn, dogwood, chokeberry, viburnum, native honeysuckle, blueberry, cedar, and others that bear small fruits. They may also visit birdbaths, especially those with moving water.

How do they nest? While many bird species are strongly territorial, cedar waxwings do not defend a territory at all. In fact, they are sometimes semi-colonial, nesting close together with other waxwing neighbors. However, these birds are monogamous. Both sexes help build a bulky, cup-shaped nest in the outer canopy of a tree. Leaves, straw, twigs, and string are used to construct the nest. Sometimes waxwings gather these materials by stealing from other birds' nests. The female lays four eggs and incubates them for 12 days while the male feeds her. Young are fed on insects for the first two days, then solely on regurgitated fruits, leaving the nest around 15 days later. This fruit-based diet ensures that any parasitic brown-headed cowbirds hatching in their nests do not survive. Large flocks of immature birds (identifiable by their yellowish, streaked bellies) linger near breeding grounds for one or two months after the adults leave.

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  • I have experienced this when a house wren punctured 5 blue bird eggs last spring in our blue bird box. Then I hung out a wren box by the trees and he got busy filling it and left the bluebirds alone and they successfully raised another brood!
    by Susan, Sun, 07 Apr 2019
  • I also have several turkeys that live in the woods behind me. They visit early morning and near sundown. Living in the country with a mountain and brook behind my house, I have animals visiting 24hrs a day. My turkeys are awesome. They know me and wait for their breakfast. They hop up on my patio wall to look in my windows. I also noticed the 2 birds that are the lookouts. They come over to eat as the others march across my lawn to my neighbor who also feeds the animals. We also have coyotes that, I am sure, have eaten turkey dinner. The squirrels run around and chase them to protect their seeds and cracked corn. I feed my 3 raccoons peanut butter jelly sandwiches, which they share with a possum and 3 skunks, at the same time, by the way. No food goes into my garbage. Meat scraps go to crows and hawks. Everything else, even soup, gets eaten before the sun is completely set. That keeps bears away if no dishes are there to entice. I break up bread in tiny pieces now and turkeys 'gobble' it up. So happy to find another person that enjoys wildlife. Nothing is more satisfying than walking out side and spotting Daisy the skunk, calling her name and watching her tripping all over herself, running to meet you. Thank you for your valuable information.
    by Stella Kachur, Wed, 27 Mar 2019
  • This is exactly my experience. The local feed store had some on sale so I thought I'd try some. Actually I was shocked at how it is avoided, and I've been feeding birds for more than 40 years. I suppose I've never had it out as the ONLY food source, but when I put it out along with the blackoil, peanuts, cracked corn and suet cakes, absolutely nothing would touch it. Even when I dumped some on the ground the rabbits wouldn't eat it, nor would the squirrels. Eventually some turkeys and deer ate some--when they could find nothing else underneath the other feeders. But even they left plenty on the ground which they NEVER do with cracked corn, sunflower, etc.Every person should try some if they're inclined and decide for themselves since every situation may be a bit different, but for me/my species, safflower is a big no.
    by Colin Croft, Sun, 03 Mar 2019
  • I have questions about the Zick Dough? It says not to use in cold weather. It is still in the 40s here. Too soon? How long should I expect a supply to last? And, use a tray feeder? Thanks.
    by martindf, Sun, 25 Nov 2018
  • Glad I found this. I'm a snowbird and was worried about all the birds that come to feed at my birdfeeder. I have Cardinals, sparrows, doves, Blue Jays, chickadees. I hope they'll find food elsewhere while I'm gone.
    by Donna, Sat, 03 Nov 2018