ALWAYS IN SEASON/ MIKE JACOBS: Waxwings face risks in winter weather

To be honest, I can't tell you where to find a cedar waxwing in January, or even if the cedar waxwings are still around. A band of them was at our place west of Gilby, N.D., through the middle of the month. The last report I heard from Grand Fork...

Illustration by Mike Jacobs
Illustration by Mike Jacobs

To be honest, I can't tell you where to find a cedar waxwing in January, or even if the cedar waxwings are still around. A band of them was at our place west of Gilby, N.D., through the middle of the month. The last report I heard from Grand Forks came on Jan. 17.

Cedar waxwings nest in our area, but in winter, they are nomadic birds, sometimes present and sometimes not. Waxwings seen here in winter are more likely to be Bohemian waxwings, although in some winters both species are present.

Waxwings are pretty birds and are not likely to be overlooked. As Suezette likes to say, they are "bandits with bad hair." This distinguishes them from other bird species, but not from each other.

They are social birds, sometimes occurring in quite large flocks, moving almost as a single entity, the way that starlings or blackbirds often do. Both waxwing species have conspicuous crests that they manipulate, raising or lowering them; they likely play a role in communication and courtship. Both species are "masked," a feature that is widespread in the bird world, and both have black patches on the throat, usually larger in males than in females. Both have square tails tipped in bright yellow.

To distinguish a cedar waxwing from a Bohemian waxwing, you might look under the tail. Bohemian waxwings have reddish feathers there while cedar waxwings are white. A bit farther forward, cedar waxwings are yellow on the belly and Bohemians grayish white. Topside, cedar waxwings are a richer yellow-brown color; Bohemians usually seem grayer and more subdued. The pattern in the wings is another important clue. Bohemian waxwings have white in the wings; cedars not so much. Both have red tips on the wing feathers-most of the time. These resemble drops of wax and give the family its common name.


The Japanese waxwing, the third member, has these, as well; otherwise, it is similar to the Bohemian waxwing. This third species occurs only in eastern Asia; the Bohemian waxwing's range extends around the Northern Hemisphere. Cedar waxwings occur only in North America.

Three species makes a small family in the bird world, and the exact relationship of waxwings to other birds is unclear. In the "Encyclopedia of North American Birds" (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1980), John K. Terres says that waxwings "apparently belong to a relic group of birds whose close relatives have vanished." He also notes that waxwings "are nomadic and not strongly territorial."

Although waxwings protect their nests and sometimes compete for food supplies, they don't establish or advertise and defend territory in the way that most birds do. For most species, this involves songs or other calls. Waxwings don't sing; instead, they utter hisses and buzzing noises at a fairly high pitch.

Waxwings are unusual in another way. They vary their diet by season. In the nesting season, they are insect eaters and use exposed perches as launch pads for aerial hunting, as many flycatchers do. This influences their choice of nest sites. It also determines the time of nesting; insects are most abundant in late summer, and so waxwings tend to be late nesters, sometimes as late as mid-August.

At other times of the year, waxwings are fruit eaters, and overall, fruit makes up as much as 80 percent of their annual food intake. The search for fruit is an ongoing activity for waxwings, which are long-distance foragers, showing up in big numbers in some places in some years and not at all in others.

Their dependence on fruit is reflected in their name; cedar and juniper berries are an important food item for cedar waxwings, which early naturalists often called "cedarbirds." Meriwether Lewis referred to them as "cherry birds"; he knew them from Virginia, where waxwings descended on orchards in the fall.

Lewis saw them twice at Fort Mandan on the Missouri River. On Nov. 10, 1804, he noted he "saw a flock of crested cherry-birds passing to the south." Five months later, "a flock of cherry or cedar-birds were seen." The date was April 6, 1805. Lewis didn't include these encounters in his journal. We owe these records to Elliott Coues, who found them in Lewis' notes and included them in the appendix of the published journals. These remarks suggest that some waxwing movements are regular; they are at least partially migratory rather than exclusively nomadic.

Foraging over long distances is a poor survival strategy, but happily for waxwings, this existential threat has decreased as humans have planted more fruit trees across the American plains, providing both shelter and food for peripatetic waxwings. Waxwing numbers are increasing, which means that chance encounters with waxwings should become more frequent (and writing about them in winter less risky, as well).


That's why I planted cedars, and the cedarbirds rewarded me this winter.

TOM STROMME/TribuneMike Jacobs is the former editor of the Grand Forks Herald and writes a weekly column focusing on the 65th North Dakota Legislature assembly.
Mike Jacobs

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