Cedar Waxwings made my day this week. What alerted me to the Cedar Waxwings was the calls of a vocal Gray Catbird. The Catbird was making a variety of sounds. A pair of House Finches made an appearance. So did a Robin.
When watching the Catbird through binoculars I was excited to see two Cedar Waxwings on the outer branches of the dead Norway Maple tree, two houses away. I watched one Cedar Waxwing feed the other.
As I settled in a comfortable chair to watch the activity, several more Cedar Waxwings showed up. I knew what drew the Catbirds, House Finch, and the Cedar Waxwings to my back garden, the Shadbush. The Shadbush is covered with ripening berries.
I planted the Shadbush over fifteen years ago. I use it as an indicator plant in phenology observations. I had specifically planted the small tree to attract fruit-eating birds to my garden. It worked to attract the Cedar Waxwings, House Finch, and Gray Catbird.
Few berries are the dark deep red that signals ripeness. I watched the Cedar Waxwings choose berries to eat. I expected the birds to eat the few ripe berries on the tree. The birds eat a variety of berries but seem to prefer the berries that were half green and half red.
Some berries have the telltale signs of Cedar Apple Rust. This is the second year the tree has the disease. The birds avoid the infected berries.
There are at least six birds in the flock. Cedar Waxwings travel in flocks. I think they are some of the most attractive and elegant birds in the east.
It is hard to confuse these birds with any other except the larger Bohemian Waxwing which is found in the northern states.
Cedar Waxwing Feeding Behavior
I first noticed the birds as they perch in a tall dead tree about twenty feet form the Shadbush. Apparently this is standard Cedar Waxwing behavior to perch in a tall tree near the food source. Once they decide it is safe to descend to eat the fruit.
They feed primarily on high sugar fruits for most the of the year, from fall to spring. They go where they find fruit. Their favorite food is the fruit of the Eastern Red Cedar, which gave them their name. The Eastern Red Cedar is a juniper with seed cones that look like a long dark purple-blue berry. Inside the juniper berries contain one to three seeds. Juniper berries are an important winter food source for many birds.
During the summer, Cedar Waxwings catch insects and feed them to their young. The adults eat the insects, too. Insects become an important part of their diet, but fruit remains the principal item.
I watched the birds as they plucked one berry and swallowed whole. The largest size seed a bird can swallow is three-fifths of an inch in diameter. So, if a fruit has a seed that is too large, it won’t be of much use to birds.
We know cedar waxwings become intoxicated on overripe berries. People named Cedar Waxwings for their fondness of cedar tree berries.
The birds typically travel in flocks, like House Sparrows. Apparently, this is more efficient in finding food. When I first saw the Cedar Waxwings, there were only three or four. I saw one bird fly off and return, with more waxwings following. I suppose the first bird was a scout.
Cedar Waxing Facts
Common Name: Cedar Waxwing
Scientific Name: (Bombycilla cedrorum)
Family: Bombycillidae – three species worldwide, 2 in North America
Similar species: Bohemian Waxwing (Bombbycilla garrulus) is larger, plumper, and mostly seen in the northern states.
Range: widespread across North America
Habitat: open woods, hedgerows, orchards
Migration: southward in winter
Length: 7 ½ inches
Plumage: sleek gray-brown body with red waxy tips on the wing tips. There are yellow tips on the tail. Black eye stripes, pointed crest. There is a blush of yellow on the sides of the lower breast. The juvenile is streaked.
Behavior: Waxwings travel in flocks outside of the breeding season
Voice: call is a high-pitched trill
Breeding: Monogamous. Waxwings breed later than many other birds.
Nesting: females lay eggs from early June through early August in trees in shrubs near the nests of other Cedar Waxwings. in a cup-shaped nest. The birds nest in small colonies near a good supply of berries. There are 1 or 2 broods.
Eggs: three to five gray shells with black spots; eggs are incubated twelve to sixteen days. Juveniles are ready to fly fourteen to eighteen days.
Food and Foraging: Waxwings eat sugary fruit almost exclusively and sometimes maple sap. During the nesting season waxwing parents catch insects to feed their chicks and themselves.
Key Food Items: fruits – high sugar, low protein fruits and berries.
Attracting Cedar Waxwings
Check when each plant species and variety has fruit. I would stick with native plants and a straight species not a cultivar. A cultivar has been bred to differ from the original species with characteristics that appeal to gardeners like color, fragrance, height, etc. These changes may make it less appealing to animals. Buying the original (straight) species to attract animals applies to all plants.
- Spring Foods: fruit left over from winter, buds, sap, and the flowers of apple, cherry, aspens, cottonwood, maple, and oak.
- Summer Foods: strawberry, shadbush, mulberry, cherry, blueberry, blackberry, honeysuckle, raspberries
- Autumn and Winter Foods: viburnums, dogwoods, pokeweed, grapes, cedar, mountain ash, apples, fall raspberries, sumacs, hawthorns, junipers, tree buds, sapsucker wells
How to Attract: Cedar Waxwings are not feeder birds as they don’t eat seeds or suet. Waxwings will eat raisins or chopped apples if they are already feeding in the backyard on fruits or berries.
If you have the room, plant berry-producing shrubs and trees whose berries are ripe across the seasons. Hopefully, Waxwings will visit your backyard in every season.
They will drink water or bathe in a bird’s bath. Apparently, they like low-level baths. Beware of low-slinking cats. I had a stray cat take a nap on the roof of my car, right under the tree where the Waxwings were feeding. I shooed her away and wet the car to make it uncomfortable.
The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior by David Allen Sibley (Amazon.com affiliate link) – Affiliate FAQs – Buying from this site
Bird-by-Bird Gardening by Sally Roth (Amazon.com affiliate link)
More Information on Attracting Birds
The Relationship Between Birds, Berries, and Fruit
Attracting Birds with Fruit Trees and Berry Plants