In 2012 my wife, Tracy, offered to switch home offices with me. Her kindness gave me the “corner office:” our sunroom with a south facing three-sides-of-windows view of our garden. I thank her for that gift every day, when gazing out the window and seeing the hummingbirds, sparrows, wrens, chickadees and holly. The holly, with its bright red berries, attracts lots of migrating birds. From time to time, when passing through the office, I would first hear and then see waxwings as they congregated on the nearby rhododendron and got ready to take wing. In short order they would pierce the flaming red berries on the adjacent holly and gorge themselves on as many berries as they could handle.
Cedar Waxwings are a member of the Bombycillidae Family of Passerine birds. They breed in open woodland areas of North America, principally southern Canada and the northern states of the US.
Waxwing Migration (Blue – Winter, Yellow – Spring, Green – Both)
Adult birds are approximately 6 – 7 inches long and weigh about 30 grams. They are smaller and browner than their larger cousins, the Bohemian Waxwing, which breeds further to the north and west.
The Cedar Waxwing’s most prominent features, in my point of view, are its black eye stripe (like a Lone Ranger mask), small tufted crest, and yellow fringed tail feathers. Most bird books talk about the bright red feathers on the wings, but I do not typically see that particular feature unless I have steady binoculars handy. The other features are easily spotted with the naked eye.
The other aspect of the Cedar Waxwing that I find most identifiable is its call. The vocalizations include a very high pitched whistle followed by a buzzing trill. Some bird guides describe it with the words “SEE” or “SREE,” almost as if it were a Towhee. Those words do not quite capture the sound, but I can’t think of a better way to describe it, so we can go with that description.
Having never seen Waxwings mate, I understand that they have an elaborate and ceremonial courtship. Once they have paired off with the appropriate partner, they do a dating dance. Apparently, the male and female will sit together, either side-by-side or facing each other, and pass small objects, such as flower petals or an insect, back and forth multiple times. Then the mating pairs will rub their beaks together affectionately, before the male mounts the female.
Outside the breeding season, Cedar Waxwings often feed in large flocks numbering hundreds of birds. This species is described as irruptive, meaning it has erratic winter movements. Most of the populations, though, migrate to Central and South America for the winter. They move in huge numbers, if the berry count is low, interestingly. Cedar Waxwings, while migrating, will typically fly at an altitude of about 2,000 feet at a speed of 25 miles per hour. They must have pretty good eyesight, as they are always near plenty of berry bearing trees and bushes, when I have spotted them.
Immature Waxwing Munching Cherries
“Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head” — Kliban
One spring break with our family, while we were sitting on the Lanai of my Dad’s home in Casey Key, outside of Sarasota, Florida, we heard this loud buzzing noise outside. I immediately knew it was a flock of birds. My Dad’s wife, Dicky, searched for and handed me some binoculars. Going outside, above the house on every tree branch on the island were tons of Cedar Waxwings. It was unforgettable.
To this day, when sitting in Gearhart, Oregon, some 4,000 miles away from Sarasota, Florida, we often hear that same sound. Outside I go, fully expecting to see a flock of birds. Sometimes it is a lone Cedar Waxwing, other times it is a passel of them. In any case it is a thrill to hear them, see them, and feed them, as they cruise through the neighborhood, or migrate north or south from the Oregon coast.
Happy backyard birding to you.