Cedar Waxwing

Bombycilla cedrorum

  • Version: 2.0 — Published November 14, 2014
  • Mark C. Witmer, D. J. Mountjoy, and L. Elliot

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Cedar Waxwing.

This species is a rare and irregular winter visitor south of the distribution shown.

Adult Cedar Waxwing; Ithaca, Tompkins Co., NY; March.

Voracious feeding on fruits by large flocks and a high degree of mobility make the Cedar Waxwing an especially effective disperser of the seeds of fruiting plants, and indeed, much of its life history reflects these dietary specializations. This individual is eating honeysuckle berries. Adult Cedar Waxwings have a sharp black face mask edged with white, a blackish chin-patch, and variable numbers of red, waxlike “droplets” on tips of secondaries. The upperparts are warm brown, taupe, and gray, while the underparts are a pale yellow. The tail has a bright yellow terminal band. Taken in March, in Ithaca, Tompkins County, New York. The following is a link to this contributor's website: Gerrit Vyn.

One of only three species worldwide in the family Bombycillidae, the Cedar Waxwing is named for the red, waxlike tips on the secondary flight-feathers of adult birds. Sugary fruits dominate the diet of this bird, especially in winter. During warmer months, Cedar Waxwings glean insects from vegetation or snatch them from the air in sallies from exposed perches, often near streams or ponds. This is a true frugivore, assimilating nutrients from fruit pulp and passing seeds intact back to the environment.

Many aspects of the natural history of the Cedar Waxwing reflect its dietary specialization on sugary fruits, unpredictable in space and time: e.g., its flocking and nomadic movements, and lower levels of return to former breeding sites than other passerines. In addition, Cedar Waxwings breed late in the year, coincident with the availability of summer-ripening fruits. The sociality of individuals within winter flocks and the lack of territoriality during the breeding season also are associated with the reliance of this species on locally superabundant fruit crops. Voracious feeding on fruits by large flocks and a high degree of mobility make this waxwing an especially effective disperser of the seeds of fruiting plants.

Cedar Waxwing populations have increased during the last 20 years over much of North America, and appear to be expanding into new regions. Several factors may have fostered this growth in range and numbers: the creation of edge habitats conducive to fruiting trees and shrubs, especially as farmlands regenerate to forests; the planting of fruiting trees and shrubs in rural and urban areas; and, perhaps, the reduction of hard pesticides in many forms of agriculture.

Recommended Citation

Witmer, M. C., D. J. Mountjoy, and L. Elliot (2014). Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.