Birds & Blooms
Masked Berry Bandits
Built for gobbling fruit, cedar waxwings are striking, social birds.
With bright pops of color, bold markings and slim, shiny bodies, cedar waxwings are a sight to behold. Their behavior is exciting to watch, and they snatch berries in their bills before swallowing them whole—sometimes while hovering underneath a branch.
Waxwings sport sleek bodies with black masks over their eyes and a prominent tan crest atop their heads. The coloring of males and females is nearly identical. These distinctive birds are slightly smaller than a robin, with a large head and a short wide bill. Their wings are light gray, bellies are a soft yellow and tails have a bright yellow tip.
“People love cedar waxwings because they are just so elegant,” says ornithologist Kevin Mcgowan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, one of the developers of the All About Birds website.
Not only striking but true to their name, cedar waxwings produce wax deposits on their wings. Small droplets of red wax rest on the tips of their secondary feathers. The wax is ornamental, and eventually it wears or breaks off. Experts can only guess what purpose it serves. One speculation is about health and fitness. “In the bird world, there tend to be things like this that indicate if you’re really good at taking care of yourself, you’re really good at finding food, or being vigorous,” Kevin says. “There are a lot of signals of doing well, or not doing so well, that have survival value.”
To spot a cedar waxwing, look for a flock. Social birds, waxwings are often in a crowd of five to 50, with groups swelling in the winter, up to 200. Found throughout the year in the northern half of the United States and in the southern U.S. during non-breeding months, they nest in trees and bushes, often by open water.
These feathered friends rarely use feeders, as they are highly adapted to feed on fruit. Attract them by planting a small fruiting tree or shrub in your yard. Go the extra mile to make sure what you plant is native to your area, as it’ll have the most nutritional value for the birds.
The best wide-ranging native options include serviceberries, Juneberries, dogwoods and shadberries. Cedar waxwings also snack on strawberries, crabapples, hawthorns and juniper berries. Junipers are coniferous plants and often are given the common name “cedar,” which is how this bird gets its moniker.
During the breeding season, waxwings add insects to their diet, often swooping out from treetops to catch them in midair.