Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing. © Patricia Velte

by John Shackford

Recently I received notecards as a gift, with small copies of Audubon paintings on the front.  Of the 4 different paintings featured, my favorite is the 1 of a pair of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum).  I suspect that the beauty of this species was an inspiration to Audubon that led him to paint a particularly exquisite and accurate picture.

The Cedar Waxwing has subtle changes from one color to the next, from brown on the bird’s head fading into gray on the rump and tail; from brown on the upper breast to yellow on the belly.  One would not expect such shadings, particularly of 2 dull colors like brown and gray, to be very fascinating, but they are.  Along with the beautiful colors, the crest and the black triangle of a facemask surrounding each eye help give the bird an appearance of being in “formal attire.”  Add the yellow line across the end of the tail and, on some birds, the red “waxwing” on the end of some of the secondary wing feathers, and you end up with one beautiful bird.  I once heard a renowned architect say that he looked at bird pictures to get ideas for colors to use with his designs; he could have done a lot worse than to use the Cedar Waxwing as a model.

The nesting range of the Cedar Waxwings, roughly speaking, is from mid-Canada to the mid-U.S.  Directly north of us their normal nesting range comes southward to near the South Dakota-Nebraska line, but there are a handful of nesting records for Oklahoma.  One of these was for Oklahoma City, by Vic Vacin, a longtime member of our club in its earlier years.

Cedar Waxwings usually lay 3-5 eggs and build a fairly substantial nest, generally placed in a horizontal fork of a limb between 3-50 feet above ground.  Edward R. Ford, quoted in Bent (Life histories of North American Wagtails, Shrikes, Vireos, and their Allies, 1965) notes the “habit of the cedar waxwing of taking material from active nests of other species of birds, for use in its own nest.”  He saw such behavior on 3 [Eastern?] Kingbird and 1 Yellow-throated Vireo nests, and other people have reported similar behavior on other species.

During the breeding season, according to a Cornell University web site (http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Cedar_Waxwing/lifeistory) “[t]he Cedar Waxwing is one of the few North American birds that specializes in eating fruit, such as cherries and mulberries.  It can survive on fruit alone for several months.  Brown-headed Cowbirds that are raised in Cedar Waxwing nests typically don’t survive, in part because the cowbird chicks can’t develop on such a high-fruit diet.”

In Oklahoma we see the Cedar Waxwing primarily as a wintering species:  they winter from about the U. S.-Canadian border south to northern South America.  For most of their life—except when nesting—waxwings tend to travel in flocks, and their wanderings can be quite erratic.

During the winter in Oklahoma, Eastern redcedar berries are doubtless the major food eaten by waxwings.  The average number of wintering waxwings we have found on Christmas Bird Counts in recent years, although varying widely from year to year, appears to be increasing. This is likely because of the tremendous spread of redcedar.  Like robins, waxwings can strip a berry bush bare of berries in fairly short order.

The Cedar Waxwing has a slightly larger relative called the Bohemian Waxwing that lives further north, on average, than Cedar Waxwings, even reaching Alaska in the breeding season.  The Bohemian Waxwing can be distinguished from the Cedar Waxwing by white and yellow in the wing, and chestnut on the undertail coverts (whitish on the Cedar Waxwing). We have 1 Christmas Bird Count record of a Bohemian Waxwing coming all the way south to Oklahoma City—a single bird seen on 30 December 1961.  I remember a few of the years around that time when, on rare occasion, we found a flock of Bohemian Waxwings or a single Bohemian mixed in with Cedar Waxwings during winter in Oklahoma.  But in recent decades this one-time hope has receded into, primarily, a fond memory.  Perhaps Bohemian Waxwings are showing the effects of global warming by shifting their winter range further north.