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Garden Visitor: The Waxwing

By Gwen Bruno (gwen21April 5, 2013
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Waxwings range across most of the U.S., but because they are nomadic, you must remain observant in order to catch their visit. Unlike other birds that dependably migrate from one region to another, the waxwing instead travels spontaneously in search of its favorite food, berries.

Gardening pictureName
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Cedar Waxwing
(Bombycilla cedrorum)
The handsome and refined-looking waxwing takes it name from the red waxy substance spotting its wings. Scientists are unsure of the purpose of this wax, although it may play a part in the birds’ selection of a mate. Some call the waxwing the “cherry bird” because of its fondness for the fruit.

Identification
Two species, the cedar waxwing and the Bohemian waxwing, make appearances throughout most of North America. Very similar in looks, males and females of both species bear a soft grayish-brown coloring, with a yellow band at the tip of their tails. Like the Northern cardinal, the waxwing's head is distinguished by a dark mask and bib, and also a pointed crest. Cedar waxwings reach only about 6 inches long, while Bohemian waxwings grow larger and heftier, with white and yellow patches on their wings.

Cedar waxwings travel across the U.S. and Canada, in migrations that are irregular and unpredictable. The spend the summer primarily in the northern half of their range, moving to the southern U.S. in the winter. Bohemian waxwings nest in the far north in Canada and Alaska, heading west to the Rocky Mountain states in the winter. They may sometimes join with cedar waxwing flocks.

Habits and Behavior
Waxwings generally travel in flocks of a dozen or more individuals. The flocks may at times grow to dozens, even
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Bohemian Waxwing
(Bombycilla garrulus)
hundreds, of individuals. They typically travel from one berry-rich area to the next, methodically devouring fruit until all the trees or shrubs in a location are picked clean. They may also sit together as a group awaiting a chance to dart out to catch insects. If you watch a flock of waxwings you may spot them performing an interesting behavior. These birds will sometimes line up on a branch, where each passes along a berry to the next, in what appears to be a display of very polite manners!

Up to 84% of the waxwing’s diet consists of fruit. During times of the year when berries aren’t readily available, waxwings will eat insects, sap or flower petals. Insects are also a favored food during the nesting season, since the adults feed their hatchlings insects for the first few days of their life.

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Waxwings travel in flocks
Although they have no specific song, both species of waxwings constantly vocalize with their flockmates in high, thin notes. The flocks travel in close ranks at the level of the treetops. When they spy fruit, the birds wheel together as a group and descend on a tree. Once they have alighted, waxwings can sit motionless for long periods, making them hard to discern among the foliage.

Nesting and Young
Waxwings pair off in summer, when they build large cup-shaped nests in orchards or shade trees. Bohemian waxwings most often make their nests in conifers, up to 50 feet off the ground. Waxwings usually produce four to six spotted eggs of pale blue or green.

Attracting Waxwings to Your Yard
You can lure waxwings to your property by planting multiple types of berry-producing trees or shrubs. Besides cherries, waxwings are fond of eating mulberries, holly berries, crabapples, elderberries, cedar berries and chokecherry. Other plants providing food and/or shelter for waxwings include serviceberries, hackberries, hawthorns, dogwoods, bayberries, Virginia creeper, spruce, blackberries and viburnums.


Sources:
Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Cedar Waxwing
Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Bohemian Waxwing
Birdscaping Your Garden by George Adams
Attracting Birds to Your Backyard by Sally Roth
National Geographic Reference Atlas to the Birds of North America

Photo Credits:
Thumbnail photo by K Schneider
Cedar waxwing with berry by Henry McLin
Waxwing flock by Powered by Birds (Amy Evanstad)
Bohemian waxwing by GlacierNPS


  About Gwen Bruno  
Gwen BrunoAfter spending 28 years as a teacher and librarian, Gwen Bruno is now a full-time freelance writer residing in suburban Chicago. As a preschooler, she lovingly tended a small patch of weeds in her backyard. Luckily, her parents supported her budding horticultural endeavors, and she's been gardening ever since.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
Are they commonly seen? Gardeningman 4 15 Apr 9, 2013 4:24 AM
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