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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Cedar waxwings wait until June or later to nest. They primarily feed on sugar-rich berries, flower petals and insects. © Herbert Lange
© Herbert Lange

February 2006

Wandering waxwings

A search for fruit keeps flocks of these magnificent birds roaming the countryside.

Kathryn A. Kahler

Cedar waxwings wait until June or later to nest. They primarily feed on sugar-rich berries, flower petals and insects.

Regal. Nomadic. The two descriptions seem incongruous applied to the same bird, but the cedar waxwing's roving habits do nothing to diminish its sleek, stately fašade. Two species of waxwings are found in Wisconsin – the cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) and its larger cousin, the Bohemian waxwing (B. garrulus). Both are nomadic migrants, driven by their frugivorous, or fruit-eating habits.

Cedar waxwings are very social and flock year-round, even during courtship, breeding and nesting when other birds abandon their wandering ways. They are most often seen in flocks of 40 or more, often noisily descending en masse on a fruit-laden tree and making quick work of stripping it bare. Their summer breeding range is throughout Canada and the central U.S., and generally they winter in the southern half of the country.

These lovely nomads don't have much of a song, but they do produce distinctive calls. One is a buzzy, high-pitched trill, or seee call. A birder with a good ear can hear variations of this trill that serve as both courtship and begging call. Another common call is a high-pitched, drawn out, hissed whistle that flocks use when taking off and landing.

"Cedarbirds" are bluebird-sized, light brownish gray with pale yellow bellies. Their feathers are soft and silky, giving them their velvety, regal appearance. Tails are tipped with yellow and the undertail coverts are white. The most distinguishing characteristics are their crests, bandit-like black masks, and the bright red wax-like extensions of the secondary wing feathers, an adaptation scientists have been unable to explain. The number of these waxy appendages, for which the birds are named, increases with age until the birds attain adult plumage. Males and females look alike; juveniles have streaked breasts and lack masks.

Wisconsin residents might expect to see cedar waxwings making their way north at the end of May. don't look for them with earlier spring migrants; they are one of the latest arrivals each year. You might see them in small flocks in orchards, residential areas and open woodlands feasting on insects, buds and flower petals. By mid-June, when they get down to the business of nesting, waxwings are more commonly found in the northern half of the state. Their summer fare consists of such foods as elm leaf beetles, weevils, carpenter ants, sawfly larvae, flies, cicadas, scale insects and caterpillars.

Nesting pairs are established well in advance of the nesting season. Courtship actually begins in the migrating flock when males and females start a ritual of side-hopping and berry passing. A male perched next to a female on a branch will side-step up to the female and offer her a berry. She accepts it, hops away and back again, and passes the berry back to him. This activity continues, sometimes for up to 15 minutes, until one of the birds eats the berry.

The pair scopes out and builds the nest, usually four to 50 feet up in the fork of a horizontal tree limb in a fruit or shade tree. The birds construct a loose, bulky nest from fine twigs, grasses, paper, pine needles and stems, and sometimes line it with moss and caterpillar silk. Cedarbirds nest much later than most other birds, often as late as August, perhaps because they need ripe fruit to feed their young.

After laying two to six gray spotted eggs, the female incubates them while the male brings her food. The male protects the nest from a "sentinel perch" on a branch above the nest. When the eggs hatch in 12 to 14 days, the male continues to bring food, feeding the female first, then the young. They eat protein-rich insects for the first few days, and fruit thereafter. A waxwing pair will usually have a second brood immediately after the first. Their family-rearing activities often reach a feverish pitch as they continue to feed the first brood while building a new nest and resuming courtship. Just as they start their second brood, the first birds fledge and are on their own. Both families are out of the nest in about 65 days, by the end of September.

Late fall through early spring is the nomadic time of the year for cedar waxwings. They leave the northern counties starting mid-October and travel in flocks to wherever they can find a fruit supply. Some may stay in scattered flocks across the state all winter, especially in the Madison and Milwaukee area. Others fly south to wintering grounds, in Florida, Louisiana or Texas.

Anecdotal accounts of cedar waxwings' voracious appetite for fruit are both amazing and amusing. Berry seeds are eliminated within 45 minutes of ingestion. Some accounts tell of birds gorging themselves on over-ripe fruit until they are drunk and can scarcely fly. Another theorizes that rather than becoming intoxicated, the birds stuff so many berries down their throat in such a short amount of time that the berries cut off the blood supply to their brains, and they are only revived as the berries are quickly digested.

Bird enthusiasts can attract these lovely birds to their yards by planting a variety of fruit trees that bear in different seasons. For summer fruit, plant black cherry, pin cherry or mulberry. To bring in cedarbirds in the fall, try American mountain ash. In winter, waxwings prefer eastern red cedar and hawthorns.

Also try shrubs or vines such as serviceberry, chokecherry, raspberry, blackberry, elderberry, dogwood, nannyberry, winterberry, swamp rose, American bittersweet, grapes and wild strawberry. Nesting pairs prefer maples, alders, cedars or dogwoods. Also during spring nesting season waxwings will use wool, string, hair or other nesting materials that birders place in the bark of a tree or in a suet cage.

Kathryn A. Kahler writes from Madison and is circulation and production manager for Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.