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Appreciating the cedar waxwing

February 12, 2019 GMT

We’ve had many reports lately of gorgeous cedar waxwings. One excited birder (my sister) even told me about spotting a flock of them in the small trees lining the sidewalks of the Roundhouse. An extra bonus during this legislative session! If you see a cedar waxwing, more likely a flock this time of year, try to get a close-up look. They are real stunners.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes the cedar waxwing as a “medium-sized, sleek bird with a large head, short neck, and short, wide bill. Waxwings have a crest that often lies flat and droops over the back of the head. The wings are broad and pointed, like a starling’s. The tail is fairly short and square-tipped. Cedar waxwings are pale brown on the head and chest fading to soft gray on the wings. The belly is pale yellow, and the tail is gray with a bright yellow tip. The face has a narrow black mask neatly outlined in white. The red waxy tips to the wing feathers are not always easy to see.”

It’s hard to see just how beautiful these birds are without seeing them through binoculars. Look for them feasting from berry-producing vegetation like Pyracantha, Russian Olive, Hawthorne, Mountain Ash, Juniper and the like. They are also fairly common visitors at birdbaths this time of year. Often, these nomads won’t hang around in a yard long. They come for the fruit and water before moving on.

We are in the winter range of cedar waxwings and we hear the most reports of them from January into early April, just before they head north to nest. You’ll find them nesting in the northern half of the U.S. into Canada. Some nest as far south as Colorado. The cedar waxwing is one of the last species of North American birds to nest each year, delaying its breeding until an abundance of insects and summer-ripened fruits are available to feed their young.

Cedar waxwings are one of the only species in North America that specializes in eating fruit. They can survive for months by eating fruit alone. Come summer they supplement their diet with insects. The color of the yellow tips on their tail feathers can be impacted by the type of berries they eat, sometimes turning more orange if they eat enough red berries while their tail feathers are developing.

Although one of the most striking birds, cedar waxwings are often heard before they are seen. Listen for their high, thin, whistles when out in your backyard or walking about.

Anne Schmauss is the co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Santa Fe and she loves to hear your bird stories. She is the author of For the Birds: A Month by Month Guide to Attracting Birds to Your Backyard and Birdhouses of the World.