Nature Bulletin No. 656 November 18, 1961
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
A Cedar Waxwing, with its jaunty crest and satiny soft-colored
plumage, is as sleek and elegant a bird as you ever will see. The fawn
hues on its neck and chest shade into yellowish flanks, a warm brown
back, and grayish blue on the wings and tail. A little larger than a
bluebird, its crest, black mask across the eyes, black chin, and yellow
band at the end of the tail are conspicuous and distinctive. The name
"waxwing" comes from something not found in any other family of
birds. Usually, on the tips of the inner wing feathers of both males
and females, there are shiny red appendages like blobs of sealing wax.
Nobody knows why, nor why they sometimes occur also at the tips of
the tail feathers.
In summer, cedar waxwings consume great numbers of small moths,
cankerworms, leaf-eating beetles and potato beetles. Most of the year
they are primarily fruit eaters that gorge themselves with the little blue
berries on cedars and junipers, black cherries and choke cherries,
blueberries and blackberries, wild grapes, the berries on Virginia
creeper and poison ivy, those on honeysuckle, buckthorn and dogwood
bushes, and the fruits of alder, hawthorn, mulberry, hackberry and
mountain ash trees. "Cedar bird" and "cherry bird" are common
names for the waxwing.
They breed in southern Canada from Quebec to British Columbia, and
in the United States as far south as Georgia, Arkansas and New
Mexico. A few are summer residents in the Chicago region, nesting
regularly at Morton Arboretum and, this year, near the Little Red
Schoolhouse nature center.
Cedar waxwings nest later than most birds, from 6 to 35 feet up in the
horizontal branches of trees and shrubs. They seem to avoid dense
forests and prefer orchards, isolated trees in open areas, and trees
around swamps. The bulky untidy nest, built with twigs, roots, shreds
of bark, and rags or strong, is lined with fine rootlets and grass or hair.
From 4 to 6 pale blue or green eggs with dark spots are laid. The
young are fed fruit and insects swallowed and then regurgitated by the
parents. Until adult they are heavily streaked underneath.
Cedar waxwings do not sing. One of our naturalists said that the only
sounds they make -- a high hissing note, or a lisping "zeeee" -- are like
the whistle on a peanut roaster. During winter, flocks of as many as
100 are commonly seen here, especially at Morton Arboretum where
there is an abundance of fruit-bearing shrubs and trees. Such flocks
frequently, as if by command, stop and alight upon a certain tree
which they also leave in unison.
They have another peculiar custom described by the celebrated
ornithologist, Thomas Sadler Roberts: "When resting, the members of
a flock are apt to sit closely snuggled together in a row, and at times
may touch bills with their neighbors, first on one side, then on the
other, in a manner suggesting kissing. Even more surprising, they
may be seen to pass some tidbit, a ripe berry most likely, from one to
another all along the line and then back again several times in
succession without any bird being impolite enough to eat it..
The Bohemian Waxwing nests in Canada, Alaska, and northern
regions of Asia and Europe. It resembles the cedar waxwing but is
larger and has a white patch and yellow edging on the wings, gray
flanks, and reddish brown instead of the name "Bohemian." It is an
uncommon visitor in the Chicago region but, occasionally, enormous
flocks invade one or more regions of the United States. In 1917, more
than 10,000 visited Denver.
That's a lot of Bohemians!
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Update: June 2012