Masked Berry Ban­dits

Built for gob­bling fruit, cedar waxwings are strik­ing, so­cial birds.

Birds & Blooms - - Feeder Talk - BY KELSEY ROSETH

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.

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