Untouched Colour/Color Photograph by J. McCombie.
The Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) is a member of the family Bombycillidae or waxwing family of passerine birds. It breeds in open wooded areas in North America, principally southern Canada and the northern United States.
Cedar waxwings are approximately 6–7 in (15–18 cm) long and weigh roughly 30 grams. The Cedar Waxwing is a medium-sized, sleek bird with a large head, short neck, and short, wide bill. Waxwings have a crest that often lies flat and droops over the back of the head. The wings are broad and pointed, like a starling’s. The tail is fairly short and square-tipped. Cedar Waxwings are pale brown on the head and chest fading to soft gray on the wings. The belly is pale yellow, and the tail is gray with a bright yellow tip. The face has a narrow black mask neatly outlined in white. The red waxy tips to the wing feathers are not always easy to see. They are smaller and more brown than their close relative, the Bohemian Waxwing (which breeds farther to the north and west).
These birds’ most prominent feature is a small cluster of bright red feathers on the wings, a feature they share with the Bohemian Waxwing (but not the Japanese Waxwing). The tail is typically yellow or orange depending on diet. Birds that have fed on berries of introduced Eurasian honeysuckles while growing tail feathers will have darker orange-tipped tail-feathers. Adults have a pale yellow belly. Immature birds are streaked on the throat and flanks, and often do not have the black mask of the adults.
During courtship the male and female will sit together and pass small objects back and forth, such as flower petals or an insect. Mating pairs will sometimes rub their beaks together affectionately.
The flight of waxwings is strong and direct, and the movement of the flock in flight resembles that of a flock of small pale European Starlings. Cedar Waxwings are social birds that you’re likely to see in flocks year-round. They sit in fruiting trees swallowing berries whole, or pluck them in mid-air with a brief fluttering hover. They also course over water for insects, flying like tubby, slightly clumsy swallows. The Cedar Waxwing eats berries and sugary fruit year-round, including juniper berries and ivy berries, with insects becoming an important part of the diet in the breeding season. Its fondness for the small cones of the Eastern Redcedar (a kind of juniper) gave this bird its common name. When the end of a twig holds a supply of berries that only one bird at a time can reach, members of a flock may line up along the twig and pass berries beak to beak down the line so that each bird gets a chance to eat.
Look for Cedar Waxwings in woodlands of all kinds, and at farms, orchards, and suburban gardens where there are fruiting trees or shrubs.