Gaston’s White River Resort Nature Trails Cedar Waxwing

Gaston’s White River Resort Nature Trails Cedar Waxwing

Gaston’s White River Resort Nature Trails

Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)

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Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)


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Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)

Over most of North America, the Cedar Waxwing is the most specialized fruit-eating bird. This bird’s primary foods are fleshy fruits that are high in sugar content. Like tropical birds with this diet, Cedar Waxwings are social all year long, they nest in loose clusters, and at times they wander widely in flocks in search of temporarily abundant sources of fruit. Because of their reliance on summer ripening fruit for feeding their hatchlings, they are among the latest birds to nest in North America.

Cedar Waxwings range in summer across southern Canada from southeastern Alaska and northern British Columbia to central Ontario, southern Quebec, and central Newfoundland. They breed as far south as Maryland and Virginia (and in the mountains as far south as northern Georgia), across the northern United States to northern California. Lingering migrants are sometimes found south of this range as late as early summer, and within this range the species is highly nomadic and may not consistently be present year to year. Cedar Waxwings are most abundant in the northeastern United States, the Great Lakes region, and southern Ontario, with lesser centers of abundance in the coastal areas of southern British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon.

Typical summer habitat includes open woodlands, old overgrown fields, farms, orchards, plantations, and suburban gardens. These waxwings are absent from grasslands and deserts, except along river courses.

During winter, Cedar Waxwings range independently of either their breeding range or where they spent the previous winter. They wander so widely that it is hard to distinguish between wandering in search of food and their prolonged seasonal migration. Typically, however, large flocks of 30 to 100 birds, and exceptionally, flocks numbering up to 1,000 birds, move south on cold fronts or as fruit becomes locally depleted. Migratory flocks begin forming in August and depart the northern parts of the breeding range from late August to October. Adults migrate about one month earlier than hatch-year birds. The average distance traveled during migration is about 2,000 kilometers and the winter range can extend from southern Canada as far south as Costa Rica and Panama.

The fruit of junipers historically dominated the winter diet, especially in the northern parts of the winter range, and most Cedar Waxwings still winter in parts of the country where junipers grow. The highest concentrations of wintering Cedar Waxwings occur in central Texas in the oak-juniper savanna and in Alabama and eastern Mississippi in stands of juniper, sweet gum, and oak. In recent years, Cedar Waxwings have increasingly turned to crops and ornamentals such as crabapple, hawthorn, firethorn, pepper tree, Russian olive in the West, and non-native honeysuckle in the East as winter food sources.

In the East, forest regeneration and the planting of fruit-bearing ornamentals and crops has led to large increases in Cedar Waxwing populations. From 1965 to 1979, the population doubled. The changing diet of Cedar Waxwings brought about an interesting effect: the appearance of orange, rather than yellow, terminal bands on the tail, a characteristic not noted before 1950. This color change is attributed to pigments contained in the fruit of the alien honeysuckle Lonicera morrowii, a recent addition to the Cedar Waxwing diet.

In late May, Cedar Waxwings arrive on their breeding range and form pairs that remain together throughout the nesting season. Mates alternately hop to and away from each other, often passing a berry back and forth in courtship display. Egg laying begins in early June and continues through early August, and active nests have been reported as late as September and October. As the female incubates her eggs, the male feeds her, and he may perch on a branch overlooking the nest as a sentinel. As the nestlings hatch, they are fed a diet of insects at first, then they are quickly switched to fruit after a day or two. The adults catch insects by sallying like a flycatcher from a perch or by gleaning insects from leaves. The fledglings disperse about a month after hatching and are unlikely to return to the nest area again.

Cedar Waxwings cannot be said to have much of a song, but they do produce distinctive calls. One call is a buzzy, high-pitched trill. Variations in loudness, duration, frequency, and pitch of this trill seem to correlate with its functions as a courtship call, contact note, or begging call. Another common call is a high-pitched, drawn out, hissed whistle that is given by flocks when taking off and landing.

Description:  Cedar Waxwings are sleek, elegant birds with long wings, rather short tails, and a crest. They have a short, broad bill and short legs. Both sexes look alike. Adults are buffy brown on the head and back. The brown color shades to pale yellow on the belly and to gray brown on the back, fading further to slate gray on the rump and upper tail. The tail is tipped with a yellow band. The undertail coverts are white. The legs and feet are black. Adults have a narrow, black mask outlined in white that extends over the face to end behind each eye in a point. The chin is black. At the end of each secondary feather, the shaft is extended as a small, red, wax-like appendage. The number of these waxy appendages increases with age, until adult plumage is attained.

Juveniles are streaked on the throat, breast, and flanks, and they have much duller white or yellow bellies and undertail coverts. They usually lack the black mask of the adults and instead have much white on their cheeks and behind their eyes. Because Cedar Waxwings are such late nesters, this plumage can be seen in the fall.

Cedar Waxwings differ from the similar Bohemian Waxwing by lacking the white wing bar and yellow spots on the wings; in having white, rather than cinnamon, undertail coverts; and in having a yellow, rather than gray, belly. Bohemian Waxwings are slightly larger and somewhat more gray in color overall.


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