Cedar Waxwing by Barry Van Dusen
Once again, Bird Observer offers a painting by the artist who has created many of our covers, Barry Van Dusen. Barry, who lives in Princeton, Massachusetts, is well known in the birding world. Barry has illustrated several nature books and pocket guides, and his articles and paintings have been featured in Birding, Bird Watcher’s Digest, and Yankee Magazine as well as Bird Observer. Barry’s interest in nature subjects began in 1982 with an association with the Massachusetts Audubon Society. He has been influenced by the work of European wildlife artists and has adopted their methodology of direct field sketching. Barry teaches workshops at various locations in Massachusetts. For more information, visit Barry’s website.
The Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) is distinguished from its larger and more boreal counterpart, the Bohemian Waxwing, by its smaller size, warm brown back and underparts, and its white undertail coverts. The Bohemian Waxwing is grayer, has rufous undertail coverts, and white wing markings visible in both perched and flying birds. Adult Cedar Waxwings have red, wax-like tips to their secondary flight feathers, yellow tips to their short tails, a prominent crest, a black mask and black chin edged in white—features that separate them from all other small bird species. Juveniles are gray rather than brown, have gray stripes on white underparts, and have less black on their faces. Cedar Waxwings are monotypic with no subspecies currently recognized.
The breeding range of Cedar Waxwings stretches from coast to coast across the upper half of the United States and lower half of Canada. The flocking and nomadic behavior of Cedar Waxwings reflects their reliance on patchily distributed fruit resources. Because of the species’ nomadic behavior, numbers vary in any given area from year to year and season to season. They tend to concentrate in areas with high densities of junipers, especially in winter. Most of the Canadian contingent is migratory, wintering from southernmost Canada south throughout the United States,
Mexico, and Central America. Most of the breeding contingent in the United States is considered a year-round resident population, even though the birds have a flair for the nomadic.
In Massachusetts the Cedar Waxwing is considered a common breeder and a migrant. During breeding season waxwings nest whenever and wherever they locate a patch of abundant fruit or berries. Egg dates range from late May to late August. The remainder of the year waxwings move from one feeding patch to another. Migration peaks range from late May to early June and August through September. In winter Cedar Waxwings are fairly common to rare, particularly near the coast and depending upon local food supplies.
Breeding habitat consists of woodland edge; isolated trees in old fields; and deciduous, coniferous, and mixed woodlands. Nest sites are often near water. Although aggressive near the nest, Cedar Waxwings are not territorial in the usual sense and they nest in loose aggregations where they may form feeding flocks in nearby fruiting trees or shrubs. However, adjacent pairs, particularly the males, may engage in territorial chases. A threat display with body lowered, feathers fluffed, crest raised, and bill open is given in aggressive situations. Calls consist of trills or hissy whistles. Variations in these vocalizations include contact calls that facilitate flocking, courtship calls, and alarm calls. Courtship involves the male and female hopping along a branch to approach each other and may end in a touching of bills. They may also pass fruit or other objects to each other, and sometimes they engage in courtship flights.
Cedar Waxwings are seasonally monogamous and may produce two broods a year. A second nest may sometimes be under construction before the first brood fledges. Late nesting is an adaptation to the late summer ripening of fruiting trees and shrubs. The nest site is scouted by both members of a pair, but the ultimate selection is probably by the female. The nest is typically in a fork or horizontal branch and consists of a bulky cup of grass and twigs that often incorporates man-made materials such as string, and may also include moss, bark, or hair. It is lined with fine vegetation such as rootlets.
Occasionally they may use old nests as a source of nesting materials. Both parents collect nesting material but the female does most of the nest construction. The nest may be in a broad spectrum of trees including orchard trees and cedars. The usual clutch is four to five pale blue eggs, spotted with dark colors. The female develops a normal brood patch although males occasionally develop a small unvascularized one. Studies of banded birds suggest that normally females do all of the incubation for the 12 days prior to hatching. Males feed the females during incubation. The chicks are naked, helpless, and hatched with their eyes closed. Both parents feed the young for the about 16 days to fledging. The young are fed for about a week after fledging before they join flocks of young from nearby nests.
When foraging, Cedar Waxwings pluck fruit from trees or shrubs while either perched upright or hanging upside down. They may also snatch fruit while hovering. They form large foraging flocks in winter. The diet of waxwings consists mostly of fleshy fruits and invertebrates with a heavy reliance on cedar berries, and an increasing reliance in winter on urban ornamental fruit such as crab apples. In summer Cedar Waxwings glean or hawk insects, and take emerging insects, such as mayflies, from streams and ponds. They are reported to eat flowers in spring. In summer, strawberries and raspberries are an important source of fruit. Waxwings sometimes become intoxicated from eating fermenting fruits, and there are reports of fatalities after excessive binging.
Cowbirds appear not to be much of a threat to Cedar Waxwings for several reasons: waxwings either eject cowbirds eggs or abandon their nest if it has been parasitized; their late nesting period discourages cowbirds; and the occasional young cowbirds do not fare well on the waxwing’s predominantly fruit diet. Cedar Waxwings are regularly subject to predation by accipiters. They are commonly killed in window collisions, probably because in urban areas fruiting shrubs are often near houses. In nocturnal migration they suffer mortality from collisions with towers. Fruits sprayed with pesticides may also cause mortality. Breeding Bird Survey data, however, suggest that Cedar Waxwing populations in North America are stable or increasing, which indicates that this social and common species has a bright future.
William E. Davis, Jr.