Cedar waxwing, adult (photo by Cris Hamilton)
Cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are in town eating fruit on our trees, vines and shrubs. Their nomadic flocks go where the fruit is and right now it’s in Pittsburgh.
These sleek, fast moving, unpredictable birds are so social you almost never see one alone. The flocks can number in the hundreds, bouncing from tree to tree or perched high on bare branches.
Without binoculars they look like the last remaining leaves.
If you get a good look at a waxwing you’ll see a sleek bird, smaller than a robin, with a crest, black face mask, yellow tail tips, an olive brown back that fades to gray, a taupe breast and lemon yellow belly. If you’re lucky you’ll also see the waxy red wing tips that give the bird its “waxwing” name.
Cedar waxwing adult, showing wax-tipped wings (red) and yellow-tipped tail (photo by Cris Hamilton)
Its “cedar” name comes from the birds’ fondness for cedar berries.
Fruit of eastern redcedar, Juniperus virginiana (photo by Keith Kanoti, Maine Forest Service, Bugwood.org)
Cedar waxwings look easy to identify but they can fool you. They often flatten their crests and move so fast you can’t get a good look at them. In flight they resemble starlings, and there are some odd-looking birds among them.
Cedar waxwing, immature (photo by Cris Hamilton)
The mottled ones are immature waxwings whose body shape, black masks, and yellow tail tips are the hint to their identity.
Immature cedar waxwing eating fruit (photo by Cris Hamilton)
While feeding, the flock bounces and swirls above you. Then just before they all take off they raise their voices in high-pitched Zeeee’s and are gone. If you can’t hear the sound below, click here for the sonogram to see what you missed. (Note: There’s a cardinal in the background of the recording. You might hear the cardinal but not the waxwings. Cedar waxwings are one of the first bird sounds we lose as we age.)
Though some waxwings stay all winter in southern Pennsylvania most of the nomads are on their way to the southern U.S. They’ll leave when they run out of fruit or a cold front arrives.
p.s. Cedar waxwings are one of the few species whose population has increased in the past 20 years, perhaps because there’s more fruit as invasive honeysuckle spreads and we plant ornamentals in new suburbs.
(cedar waxwing photos by Cris Hamilton, photo of eastern redcedar berries by Keith Kanoti, Maine Forest Service via Bugwood.org)