Cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyBombycillidae
GenusBombycilla (1)
SizeLength: 14 - 17 cm (2)
Wingspan: 22 - 30 cm (2)
Weight32 g (2) (3)
Top facts

The cedar waxwing is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) is a sleek bird with a relatively large head, a short, wide bill (2), and a long, brown crest (4) (5) (6) (7) which can be erect or flattened (3).

The upperparts of the cedar waxwing are brown (4) (5) or grey-brown (3), and the feathers are described as having a silky or soft appearance (4) (5) (6). The underparts of the cedar waxwing are yellow (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7). The colouration of the head is sharply punctuated by a black face mask (2) (3) (6) (7), which is neatly outlined in white (2) (3). The chin and upper throat of the male bird are black, whereas in the female they are mostly brown (3).

In adult cedar waxwings, the brown upperparts fade to soft grey or dark blue-grey on the wings (2) (5), which are broad and pointed (2) (3). The cedar waxwing derives its name from the red, wax-like tips present on some of the wing feathers of adult birds (2) (3) (6) (7). The red colour in the wing tips comes from a carotenoid pigment found in many of the fruits consumed as part of this species’ diet (4).

The cedar waxwing has a short, square tail (2) (3) which has the appearance of having been dipped in yellow paint (2) (3) (4) (5) (7). However, in the last 35 years some birds with orange-tipped tails have been recorded. This colour variation is thought to be a result of cedar waxwings eating Morrow’s honeysuckle (Lonicera morrowii) during their moult. Morrow’s honeysuckle contains a red pigment known as rhodoxanthin, and when in combination with the normal yellow tail pigmentation it produces an orange colour (3).

Male and female cedar waxwings look very similar (3) (4), but juveniles of this species are light brown-grey (6) and have brown-streaked underparts (3) (4) (6). The yellow band on the end of the tail is narrower in juveniles than in adult birds (3), and juveniles lack the red, waxy wing tips (6). Unlike the adult birds, juvenile cedar waxwings have little or no black around the eyes or throat (3) (6).

The calls of the cedar waxwing are high-pitched, and are described as buzzy or trilled notes (3), or wheezy, thin whistles (2) (3) (4) (6) (7).

The cedar waxwing is found throughout much of North America (2), with its breeding range spanning from Alaska southwards across Canada and the northern half of the USA, including north-western Nevada and northern Georgia (3) (8).

In the winter, the cedar waxwing is found across southern Canada, throughout the USA (3) (8) and southwards as far as Panama. This species is concentrated on the south-eastern coastal plains of the USA during the winter, but it is also known to visit Bermuda and the Caribbean region (3).

Open woodland, thickets, hedgerows, suburban gardens and orchards are the preferred habitats of the cedar waxwing (2) (3) (4) (8) (9). This species tends to avoid nesting in the forest interior, and prefers areas near water where nesting locations and fruit sources are plentiful (3) (8) (9).

The cedar waxwing is a non-territorial (3), highly social species which forms large flocks (2) (3) (4) of up to several hundred individuals (8).

The migratory patterns of the cedar waxwing are not fully understood, but it is known to move southwards in the winter, and there are generally two surges of migrations to breeding grounds in the spring (3). The breeding season of the cedar waxwing occurs much later in the year than in most other bird species, and it is thought to coincide with the seasonal availability of summer-ripening fruits (3) (4).

The cedar waxwing performs a courtship dance, also known as courtship-hopping (3), which involves the pair passing a small item, usually food, between themselves, and hopping away from and back towards each other (2) (3). Pairs of cedar waxwings are thought to remain monogamous throughout the breeding season (3) (4), and will produce one or two broods per season (2) (3).

Once a pair bond has formed, the birds begin nest-building, although most of this is carried out by the female (2) (3). The nest is usually located in the fork of a horizontal branch (2) (3) (4), and is built from twigs, grasses, string and other materials (2) (3) (4) (8). The bulky, cup-like nest (2) (3) is lined with softer materials including fine roots, pine needles (2) (4), hair and moss (3), and is often adorned with fruiting grasses and catkins (2) (3). The construction of the nest can take 5 or 6 days to complete, and may require more than 2,500 individual trips to the nest (2).

A cedar waxwing clutch typically consists of 4 or 5 eggs (3) (4) (8) (9) which are incubated for a period of 12 to 14 days (3) (4) (9). Only the female cedar waxwing incubates the eggs, and is fed by the male while doing so (3) (4).

The smooth, glossy eggs are grey or bluish-grey with a light, irregular pattern of brown spots and darker grey blotches (2) (3) (4) (8).

Cedar waxwing chicks are born naked, blind and helpless (2) (3). They are fed by both the male and female (3) (4), which provide the chicks with insects for the first two days and regurgitated berries thereafter (4). Young cedar waxwings fledge between 14 and 18 days of age (9).

Adult cedar waxwings feed primarily on sugary fruits for most of the year (3) (10), including elderberries, cedar berries (2) (6), wild cherries (4) and mulberries (2) (3) (4). This species swallows berries whole (2), and a flock can strip a berry-laden tree bare within a matter of hours (7) (8).

Cedar waxwings are known to become intoxicated when they feed on overripe, fermenting fruits (2) (4), which can lead to the death of the individual (2).

In the summer, the cedar waxwing also eats protein-rich insects (2) (3) (7) such as mayflies, dragonflies and stoneflies (2) (3), which are either picked off vegetation or captured on the wing while flying over streams and ponds (2) (3) (4).

The cedar waxwing appears to be vulnerable to window and car collisions (2) (3), as well as to pesticide poisoning (3). However, despite this, there are currently no known major threats to the cedar waxwing population.

Populations of the cedar waxwing have grown in North America over the last 20 years, possibly as a result of the increasing presence of fruiting shrubs and trees in urban and rural areas, and the regeneration of farmlands into forests (3). As a result, there are no known conservation measures in place for the cedar waxwing.

Find out more about the cedar waxwing:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2012)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Cedar waxwing (March, 2012)
    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Cedar_Waxwing/id
  3. Witmer, M.C., Mountjoy, D.J. and Elliot, L. (1997) Cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
    http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/309/
  4. Eastman, J.A. (1997) Birds of Forest, Yard, and Thicket. Stackpole Books, Pennsylvania.
  5. Turcotte, W.H. and Watts, D.L. (1999) Birds of Mississippi. University Press of Mississippi, Mississippi.
  6. Kee, S.N. (2010) Backyard Birds of the Inland Empire. Heyday, California.
  7. Stensaas, M. (2004) Canoe Country Wildlife: A Field Guide to the North Woods and Boundary Waters. University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota.
  8. McWilliams, G.M. and Brauning, D.W. (2000) The Birds of Pennsylvania. Cornell University Press, New York.
  9. Federation of Alberta Naturalists (2007) The Atlas of Breeding Birds of Alberta: A Second Look. Nature Alberta, Canada.
  10. Witmer, M.C. and Van Soest, P.J. (1998) Contrasting digestive strategies of fruit-eating birds. Functional Ecology, 12: 728-741.