Dear Wood Folk,
The name “waxwing” comes from a waxy red secretion found on the tips of the secondary feathers of some cedar waxwings. In the 1960s, orange became all the rage, which was a great mystery at first. It turns out the color change came from waxwings eating the berries of a non-native species of honeysuckle. (BTW We have native species like northern bush honeysuckle that would be smart to plant! Maybe you’ll attract hummingbird moths too!)
Cedar Waxwing Plant Allies
Cedar waxwings will flock to about any space if there are fruiting trees, shrubs and vines. Besides a spot bursting with fruits, they prefer moving water nearby as well. One of the most surefire spots I go to photograph them is beside apple trees along a babbling stream when the apple trees are in bloom or ripe. It was surprising to me to see how much they love eating apple blossoms.
As I referred to in the subtitle, the male offers a blossom as a bouquet to his mate. It might actually be another small edible morsel but often he’ll pick a flower petal. They’ll do a little courtship dance and pass the gift back and forth until she finally eats it. (Someone should devote an entire Tiktok channel to reenacting rituals like this.)
Cedar waxwings often nest in flocks of a dozen or so. The females do most of the building, occasionally sneaking materials from other birds nests. They prefer horizontal branches or vertical forks to set their nests in, favoring cedar and maple. Pine, apple, pear, and hawthorn trees may suffice, amongst others. The nests are loose cups of grasses, roots, twigs and other plant fibers. They are lined with soft materials like fine grasses, hair, mosses and rootlets.
Eating eastern red cedar berries bestowed the “cedar” part of their name, but we’re a bit far north for that type of juniper. They are called “Cherry Bird” as well, and our many black cherry trees are another spot I frequently catch them feasting. They are year-round frugivores, downing the aforementioned apples and cherries, plus bayberry (sweet gale), blackberries, blueberries, cedar, crabapples, dogwoods, elderberries, grapes, hackberry, holly, honeysuckle, juniper, mountain ash, pokeweed, raspberries, serviceberries, strawberries, viburnum berries, winterberry and yew berries. Flocks sometimes pass berries down a branch to feed each other. They also eat other flowers besides apple blossoms, and will even drink sap. In the summertime, they supplement their fruit diet with some insects including the maligned spruce budworm.
Because they eat so much fruit and some of ours hangs on our trees well past ripening, they occasionally get drunk on fermented fruit and may even die for it. Our black bears are prone to this as well. Not so much the alcohol poisoning part, but up to the passing out part.
How to Attract Cedar Waxwings
A surefire way to attract waxwings to your yard around here is to plant native trees and shrubs that bear fruit. Every single plant included in the paragraphs above will grow around Haliburton, Ontario, Canada. Black cherry and apple trees are where I spot them most often. Many plants of the prunus species can be used to create thickets of waxwing paradise.
Waxwings don’t easily attend feeders, but on a tray sort of feeder you can offer fruits like various dried berries, and especially fresh berries of all kinds, maybe even chopped up grapes and apple chunks. Insects like mealworms could be thrown in the mix in the summertime. Of course, around here, others will probably get to these treats first. As usual, an insect friendly yard (wild and with native plants) is helpful.
And you can mimic the moving stream attraction. Spacious basins 2-3 inches deep are smart since again they like to flock. A bubbler or some other device to get the water moving and babbling would help. They (at least mostly) head a touch south from us in the winter so they won’t miss it in the wintertime.
The shelter of different evergreen trees and shrubs offer a waxwings favored protection, and most birds will agree they are great cover.
Cedar waxwings aren’t our only sort. I’ve only heard of Bohemian waxwings in our area on rare occasion. They seem scarce here but may show up in the winter/nonbreeding season. When breeding they are up north and especially northwest, mainly BC, the Yukon and Alaska. Cedar waxwings have a much larger range. When I saw a flock of waxwings near Cannington, Ontario, I had assumed they were cedar, although something seemed off. They seemed bigger for one. It wasn’t until I got these pictures uploaded that bohemians came to mind. It’s a cedar on the left and a bohemian on the right in the picture below. The brown derrière is the biggest giveaway that you’ve got a bohemian in sight. There are also differences on the wings that you can’t see in this picture:
Oh my goodness, it’s Spring in a few days! Next month we’ll meet my friend Chessy the Chestnut-sided warbler, who greeted me nearly every day last spring. I watched him find a mate and raise a chick as well. We’ll be talking about all the warblers that come through Haliburton county, and how to make a list for warbler birding so you can keep track of who you spot, wherever you live in the world. In anticipation, I’ve already uploaded two posts to our Instagram featuring the warblers (here and here). Please follow our socials and stay in touch!