Cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are specialized to eat fruit and berries. Occasionally these medium sized birds will catch protein-rich insects, such as mayflies, dragonflies or stoneflies, in flight or eat a beetle or scale insect from vegetation. Yet these insects are a minor contribution to the cedar waxwing diet. Occasionally a waxwing will even become intoxicated or die from eating overripe berries or fruits that have begun to ferment. Because of their dietary preferences, waxwings can be found in woodlands, farms and orchards containing fruiting trees or shrubs.
I was very surprised to see a small flock of cedar waxwings in a flowering apple tree at Baum Lake (Shasta County CA). These birds, as can be seen in the pictures, were eating apple blossom petals. Neither Leonard nor I had any idea that they would eat flower petals. However with a little research I discovered that waxwings will eat fruit flowers and developing fruit. I suppose they just cannot wait for the apples to develop and ripen.
To my eye cedar waxwings are beautiful birds – a pale brown head and chest, a lemon yellow belly and gray tail. The tip of the tail is bright yellow. The yellow tail color is synthesized from carotenoid in the diet. In portions of the northeastern United States cedar waxwings with orange tail tips began to appear in the 60s. This was due to an introduced exotic honeysuckle with berries containing the red pigment rhodoxanthin. If a cedar waxwing eats enough of these honeysuckle berries during their moult, the tip of the short, squared tail comes in orange rather than yellow. A black mask adds interest to the head as does a small crest that often lies flat and droops over the back of the head. The name waxwing derives from waxy red droplets that form at the end of the secondary wing feathers. The purpose of these red secretions, most fully developed in males, is not known but may be involved in courtship and mate selection. The short, broad bill is adapted for grasping and eating large berries.
Cedar waxwings winter in the southern 48 states, summer in northern Canada and are year-round residents of the area between. A social bird, they gather in huge flocks, particularly in the winter. Even when nesting many waxwings are found in close proximity to one another. Even in areas where cedar waxwings are permanent residents their presence is variable. Depending on the food supply they may be abundant one year and absent the next.
Cedar waxwings have an unusual characteristic for passerines – they do not sing, although they do have several calls.
I am always excited when I find a flock of these distinctively plumed birds.