The Wonderful World of Waxwings

Learn All About Bohemian and Cedar Waxwings!

January 29, 2019
Bohemian Waxwing
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Have you ever seen a waxwing? A beautiful bird with hints of bright colors and a characteristic crest, they can often be found feasting on wild fruit and berries. Here’s what you should know about the wonderful waxwing!

Meet the Waxwings

These small, social birds, with plumage that ranges in color from pinkish to dove-gray, are some of the most subtly beautiful guests in our garden each year. Their black masks, yellow-tipped tails, and bright red waxy feather tips add splashes of color to an otherwise pastel bird. 

Of the three species of waxwings in the world, two can be found in North America, while the third—the Japanese Waxwing—resides only in northeastern Asia.  

The rarer of the two North American species is the Bohemian Waxwing, which is larger than the Cedar Waxwing and has cinnamon-colored under-tail feathers and a gray breast. It is known for erratic winter movements and large flocks may appear in February and March along the Canadian border and down into the Rocky Mountains. The Bohemian is commonly part of winter finch irruptions, but occurring later in winter, usually February and March.

Bohemian waxwing
A Bohemian Waxwing (and friends) foraging in a fruit-bearing tree.

Christmas bird census records in Winnipeg, Canada, have shown as many as 4,724 in 1989 to as few as one bird in 1992! Over time, the Bohemian Waxwing’s numbers have increased due to ornamental plantings of fruit trees such as crabapples and mountain ash, which provide the birds with a feast of fruit.

The Cedar Waxwing, on the other hand, is less happy in cold climates and has been recorded as far south as Costa Rica in the winter months. During the rest of the year, they prefer to reside in the temperate areas of the northern United States. The Cedar Waxwing looks very similar to the Bohemian, but its under-tail feathers don’t have the characteristic cinnamon hue and the coloration of its head, back, and stomach has a slightly more peach-yellow tinge to it.

Fantastic Fruit-Eaters

As frugivores (fruit-eaters), waxwings can survive on a diet of sugary fruits for long periods of time, with mountain ash being an especially favorite food source. Crabapples, dogwoods, and other berry- or fruit-bearing plants are commonly visited by the waxwing, too.

Both Bohemian and Cedar Waxwings have intestinal enzymes that catalyze sucrose (sugar). This, along with low nitrogen requirements, permits waxwings to exist on a diet high in fruit. When fruit and berries aren’t readily available, they mix insects, flower buds, and tree sap into their diets. 

Cedar waxwing
A Cedar Waxwing feasts on flower buds.

Because waxwings have the ability to metabolize ethanol, they can sometimes become intoxicated by too much fermented fruit! Both species can be found lying motionless on the ground under a crabapple tree after a storm, though they typically recover after a few hours of inebriation. Sometimes, waxwings gorge themselves so much on sugary fruit that they are unable to fly.

A 1974 Manitoba study of Bohemian Waxwings that perished from flying into buildings after indulging in fermented fruit from a crabapple tree showed that the birds had an alcohol content of nearly 3% and a blood alcohol of 73 milligrams per 100 milliliters. For humans, that would be above the limit for driving, let alone flying!

Waxwings of both species have the largest livers and the widest esophagus (in relation to body size) in the bird family, owing to thousands of years of eating fermented sugary fruit. Their intestines are twice as wide as other birds and are relatively short, which allows for large volumes of fruit.

They nest late in July and August, later than most birds, when fruits and berries are available for their young. The nest consists of a cup of grass, weeds, and plant fibers lined with fine grasses and hair. Four to six eggs are the normal clutch and hatch in about 13 days. Young fledge in about 15 days.

Have you seen waxwings in your yard? If you have, share in the comments below with your location and the time of year that you saw them!

Learn More

Learn more about waxwings at Audubon.org.

About This Blog

Tom Warren has had an interest in birds since the age of 3, when he lived across from the President of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, who showed Tom how to care for injured birds. Later, a neighboring grandmother taught him the songs of warblers and thrushes, and in the eighth grade, his Middle School biology teacher took his class on birding excursions every weekend. Tom has guided bird walks and owl prowls for conservation groups, and has also participated in annual Christmas Bird Counts and the Hawk Watch on Pack Monadnock Mountain. Throughout the years, he has spent time at Pt. Pelee in Ontario observing the spring migration and has traveled to a variety of other migration areas. Tom is also committed to protecting birds and their habitat as a Trustee for both Massachusetts and New Hampshire Audubon, and the Harris Nature Center.

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