your sense of place

Photo © Keith Williams
Photo © Deborah Bifulco

Species Profile: Cedar Waxwing

by Robyn Bailey

When your diet consists mostly of wild fruit, you have to stay on the move, constantly chasing that next rush of sugar and energy. You don’t get tied to one area for very long, and it helps to travel in groups…many eyes can more easily spot the fruits. Thus, the lifestyle of the Cedar Waxwing is inextricably tied to its specialized diet of fruit. Flocks of these crested, masked, berry-eating beauties are often seen descending upon a tree or shrub that is in fruit, and the ensuing feeding frenzy leaves a lasting impression on the viewer. I still remember the first time I saw a flock of waxwings; they descended upon an Eastern red cedar that was very close to the window of a restaurant where I was eating lunch with my family. We watched in awe as they ate those small blue berry-like cones with gusto. Their red-tipped wings and yellow-tipped tails were flashing everywhere as they reached, plucked, flipped, and swallowed.

It was nine years later that I found my first nest, quite by accident, tucked into a young black walnut tree at the end of my driveway. It was August 21, and there were three chicks in the nest. Because the foods they require are usually most abundant later in the summer, Cedar Waxwings are a relatively late-nesting species. Egg-laying typically begins in June and continues through August, and active nests have been found as late as October. Cedar Waxwings like to situate their nests at woodland edges, forest gaps, old fields, orchards, and young pine plantations, because the abundance of light there makes for better fruit crops. Young are primarily fed insects for their first few days of life, but then the parents gradually increase the ratio of fruits as the chicks grow. After 14-18 days, the young are ready to leave the nest. This nest fledged on August 25, right about the time that the red-osier dogwood berries were at their peak. In fact, plants are equally dependent on fruit-eating birds for the survival of the species. Waxwings are important seed dispersers, and what are berries if not the birds’ reward for carrying the seeds to a new location, far from the parent shrub?

Finding a Cedar Waxwing nest involves a bit of serendipity, but now that most other birds have finished nesting, they may stand out from the crowd. It’s not unusual for a number of pairs to nest near each other, so if you do find a nest, search the area for any neighboring waxwing nests. Typically, the nests are located out on a horizontal branch, five feet or higher from the ground. And if you’re lucky enough to find a Cedar Waxwing nest, enjoy the experience because they are less likely to return to former breeding sites than most other songbirds. These nomads must go where ripe fruits are abundant, and long before you tire of looking at them, they will be leaving for that next patch of berries.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Cornell Lab of Ornithology