There are three species of Waxwings worldwide, with two, the Cedar and Bohemian that occur in North America. The common name Waxwing comes from red dots of a waxlike substance that form on the tips of the bird’s secondary flight feathers. The genus Bombycilla is from ancient Greek “bombux” meaning silky and modern Latin “cilla” meaning tail. In fact, in German they’re not called Waxwings, but rather their common name translates as “silky-tails.” The species name cedrorum translates from Latin literally as “of the cedars.” So, yes, they are very often found in cedars.
The only other North American bird that Cedar Waxwings could be confused with, when perched, is its larger, portlier cousin, the Bohemian Waxwing. Cedars range from 6.5 – 8 inches in size, compared to the Bohemian’s 7.5 – 8.25 inches. Size is sometimes hard to judge in the field, even more so when there’s an overlap as here.
Another helpful distinction between the species is the Bohemian Waxwing is chunkier and grayer. Cedar Waxwings are a fawn-colored tawny brownish tan from their sleeked back crest, head, breast and back to wings that start darkening slightly. The rump is gray while the tail darkens further to black with each tail feather having a yellow tip, giving the tail a terminal yellow stripe. In some juveniles that eat large amounts of non-native Eurasian Honeysuckle berries during their molt to adult plumage, the feather tips and stripe are orange and sometimes even red.
Cedar Waxwings also have a pale-yellow belly, and white under tail feathers as distinct from the larger Bohemian Waxwing, whose belly is grayish and under tail yellowish. Males and females have similar plumage. Juveniles appear to be, as one observer noted “… skeletal versions…” of adults, lacking the black throat, brown head, crest and crown along with red waxy drops on feathers and yellow tips on tail feathers of their parents. In juvenile birds, all these are a dirty whitish gray.
In flight, Cedar Waxwings might be mistaken for European Starlings, as both birds have triangular wings, pointy bills and a fluttery flight pattern. Waxwings are immediately noticeable as much lighter in overall color than Starlings, though. Both birds often are in large flocks, but European Starlings wheel and turn, dip and dive with consummate precision. They remind you of vast fleets of aerial acrobats or military precision flying teams. Cedar Waxwings, by comparison appear as rank amateurs. If Starlings are the Blue Angels precision flying team of the bird world, Cedar Waxwings are barely bumbling barnstormers that wander and veer from their position, often colliding with each other.
One could also possibly confuse them with Bobolinks in flight. The general shape and size is similar in both birds, as is the flight pattern of the wings. A Bobolink flock, however, will almost always be stretched out over a long distance. Cedar Waxwing flocks, in contrast are shorter, and more compact with birds appearing to be stacked on top of one another.
All Waxwings are unique among passerine (ones that perch on objects) birds in that they do not sing. Individual pairs have no mating/nesting territories to defend, mating and nesting near each other. They are, however, decidedly vocal. Their calls vary from soft, high pitched, lispy, wheezing twitters and ethereal sighs that are sometimes haunting, sometimes serene, to a soft breathy trill of a vapor thin scream. Waxwings call almost all the time whether perched or in flight, and although they are soft, these calls carry long distances.
Cedar Waxwings also have other fascinating characteristics For example, scientists aren’t sure what the waxy red drops on their feathers are for. Also, it’s quite common to see three adults around nests, yet no documented sightings of one of the trio being a nest “helper” are on record. In addition, Cedar Waxwings have regularly been reported as too inebriated to fly straight when they gorge on sugary fruit and berries, which are among their favorite foods, and which will ferment given the right weather conditions.
Their appearance is dapper, sleeked back, and with nary a feather out of place. With their black party (some say bandit) mask, thinly outlined in white and their look of infinite aplomb, they resemble an avian version of David Suchet playing Agatha Christie’s Hercules Poirot on the BBC’s production of Mystery! They also have a curious habit of food passing. Whether it’s berries or caterpillars or canker worms, several commonly perch on a branch and pass the item back and forth from beak to beak, with each bird taking a bite before passing it along.
From 1900 to the present, the only months that there have been no confirmed sightings of Cedar Waxwings in Doña Ana County are June, July and August. November, December and January contain the most confirmed sightings. If you want to see this fascinating bird, look for fruit-bearing trees or berry bushes. Cedar Waxwings will appear and disappear with no seeming pattern along roadsides, beside watercourses, in suburban environs, in agricultural land wherever these occur. About the only place where they are almost never seen is in deep forest.
The Bird of the Month feature is brought to you by the Mesilla Valley Audubon Society, a chapter of the National Audubon Society and a conservation, natural history organization based in Southern New Mexico. Monthly meets and beginner bird walks are free and open to the public. To find out more, visit: new-mexico-birds.com/.
Cedar Waxwings are often found where fruit and berries are available. Copyrighted photo by Robert Shantz.