For the Birds Radio Program: Cedar Waxwing

Original Air Date: July 13, 1989

recast from August 11, 1986.

Audio missing


(Recording of Cedar Waxwings–25 seconds before next recording).

Summer is the season of Cedar Waxwings in the northland. Almost anywhere, you can see the sleek, crested silhouettes of waxwings—individuals and groups—sitting on wires and treetops. They spend the lazy days of summer fattening up on berries and flying insects, as they lisp their thin, high-pitched calls, like tiny mice snoring.

(Recording of Cedar Waxwings).

Although the coloring of the Cedar Waxwing is muted—mostly brown and soft yellow—it’s without argument a beautiful bird. No other species found in Minnesota and Wisconsin in the summer has such sleek plumage. Its family name, Bombycillidae, means silky tail. The common name comes from the unique bright red waxy deposit at the tips of the adult’s secondary wing feathers. The Cedar Waxwing also has yellow tips on each of the tail feathers, making a bright terminal tail band. For a very close look, you might even stop by the Lake Superior Zoo—the Children’s Zoo building currently has one flying about and perching on the rafters, and one or two in a display in the main building.

Cedar Waxwings are unusually tame birds–wild ones can sometimes be induced to take food or nesting materials right from a person’s hand. They’re a favorite with people permitted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to care for injured birds because they’re so calm and docile.

They are also affectionate with each other—flocks frequently pass a single cherry or mountain ash berry back and forth, from one bird to the next along a long line, before one bird finally swallows the berry and the group starts over.

Cedar Waxwings eat flower petals, berries, and insects, including several species harmful to crops. These birds certainly seem to enjoy their meals—sometimes to the point of gluttony. As soon as a flock notices a mountain ash tree with ripe berries, or a blossoming apple tree, they descend and pig out until they’re so stuffed that some of them can’t take off again. Some have even dropped dead after binging on flower petals. In fall and winter, when many species of berries ferment, waxwings often get intoxicated and stagger around on lawns and roads in a drunken stupor—many are killed by predators and struck by cars before they sober up.

In most years Cedar Waxwings leave the Northland for the winter, and are ]replaced by their larger, noisier relatives, Bohemian Waxwings. But in some years both species are abundant all winter. Their wanderings are erratic—ornithologists can detect little pattern to their movements throughout the continent. Here in north country, late summer and fall are almost always the time when Cedar Waxwings are most abundant. Look for them in just about any habitat: along shorelines, in both coniferous and deciduous woods, in cities and parks—just about anywhere. You might even notice a flock of them flying overhead—they have a shape somewhat similar to a starling in flight, with their short tail and pointed wings, but Waxwings fly in a more leisurely fashion, undulating as they go. If your ears are trained to tune out traffic and other sounds of civilization, you may even hear a flock of Cedar Waxwings calling as they pass over.

(Recording of Cedar Waxwings).

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”