Cedar waxwings: Year-round beauties

By Jeanne Church

The cedar waxwing is one of the prettiest birds I’ve ever photographed in Michigan. I love the buttery yellow color of their bellies, the bright yellow tip of their tails, and the crimson red highlights on their wings. But the one feature that really sets them apart is their distinctive black mask. Even the juvenile cedar waxwings, who have none of the other brilliant characteristics of their adult counterparts, have black masks.

The “cedar” part of cedar waxwing refers to their passion for cedar berries; the “waxwing” part refers to the red, wax-like drops on the tips of their wings that are the result of a diet based on berries rich in red pigments. The number of wax tips and their size increases as the bird gets older. Individuals with fewer waxy tips, say 0-5, are younger and those with 6-9 are older. The exact function of these tips is not really known, but they may play a part in attracting mates.

Cedar waxwings are one of the few North American birds that specialize in eating fruit. In fact, they can survive for several months at a time on fruit alone. This ability to survive on a diet consisting almost exclusively of berries has allowed the cedar waxwing to make it through our cold Michigan winters. In the warmer months, they will add insects, such as beetles, caterpillars and ants, to their diet.

Berry eating, however, is not just a source of nourishment for cedar waxwings, it also plays a part in their mating rituals. Courtship begins when a male dances for a female and gives her a piece of fruit, or flower petals, or insects. If the female is interested, the “gift” will be passed back and forth several times before she eventually eats it.

Fruit also plays a part in at least one of their social activities. Cedar waxwings will line up along a branch to pass a berry down from one bird to the next until one of them finally gulps it down. Occasionally, though, cedar waxwings will eat so much fruit that they become intoxicated or even die because the berries they consumed were overripe and starting to ferment!

In my search for more interesting facts about cedar waxwings, I was quite surprised to find that adult birds can fall prey to common grackles as well as bullfrogs! Also surprising was the fact that juvenile cedar waxwings and the eggs of cedar waxwings can be eaten by blue jays and house wrens! I had no idea that bullfrogs could even swallow a full-sized bird, or that a charming little house wren would have the temerity to eat the eggs of bigger bird!

In spite of those kinds of losses, cedar waxwing numbers have been increasing for many years, partly due to the use of berry-producing trees in landscaping and the conversion of agricultural land to forest. And cedar waxwings are protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

You can find cedar waxwings in a variety of habitats, from deciduous and evergreen woodlands to orchards, suburban parks, and backyards. My favorite spot for finding them has been the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery near pond number nine!

If you want to attract cedar waxwings to your yard, plant lots of berries! In the summertime, the best ones to choose are serviceberries, strawberries, mulberries, dogwood and raspberries. In the wintertime, you can’t go wrong with cedar berries, juniper, mountain ash, honeysuckle, crabapple and hawthorn.

Keep your eye out for these beautiful birds! They will be here all winter!

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