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Crabapple Consumers

1-13-15 cedar waxwings2 Even without much of anything to go on, all answers were correct! Although Cedar Waxwings were the predominant avian visitor to this crab apple tree when I visited it, there were also robins, starlings and crows feasting away (and presumably several other species, including turkeys, as some of you guessed, at other times).

Cedar Waxwings are among the most frugivorous (fruit-eating) birds in North America. In the winter, sugary fruits dominate their diet to such a degree that occasionally, when the fruit has become overripe and has started to ferment and produce alcohol, the waxwings can become intoxicated and, rarely, die. One individual saw that her front lawn was littered with the bodies of dead Cedar Waxwings on top of the snow, but by the time she went out to dispose of them, the drunken birds had all revived and flown away.

During the winter, Cedar Waxwings travel in flocks of up to several hundred birds. They are nomadic, roaming the countryside in search of crab apples, hawthorns and mountain ashes, as well as serviceberry, juniper, winterberry, dogwood and cedar, among others. Waxwings will descend upon a tree en masse and while perched will bend down and pluck crab apple after crab apple, swallowing them whole, one at a time. Occasionally you will see them hovering briefly in the air while plucking fruit. They are well known for “gifting” fruit to fellow waxwings.

Many birds that eat a lot of fruit separate out the seeds and then regurgitate them. Cedar Waxwings let the seeds pass through them, scarifying the seeds in their digestive tract (breaking down their outer seed coat), which, once the seeds are deposited, allows them to eventually germinate. Because of this, waxwings are considered important seed dispersers for many fruiting plants in North America (including the invasive, non-native honeysuckle which, when eaten during the time feathers are developing, causes Cedar Waxwings to develop orange, not yellow, tail bands).

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6 responses

  1. Allen Hood

    With the long stems and the clustering of these fruit it looks to me more like cherries tha crab apples, Mary.

    January 13, 2015 at 8:44 am

    • A reliable way to tell the fruit of a cherry from a crabapple is to cut open the fruit and examine the seeds — cherries have one large seed, crabapples have several relatively small seeds (which these did). Can be tricky without doing that!

      January 13, 2015 at 10:08 am

  2. Jennifer Waite

    Wow, Mary, I had never heard that about the different tail color band from consuming invasive honeysuckle! I’ve seen that color variation and wondered about it – just another example of strange effects invasive plants have on our ecosystems…

    January 13, 2015 at 9:13 am

  3. So much to marvel at in this posting:

    – ‘gifting’ crab apples

    – Orange, rather than yellow stripes on their tail feathers

    – Drunk, and passed out, from fermented fruit

    Thank you for filling my morning with wonder and awe.


    January 13, 2015 at 9:30 am

  4. Many of the trees that you mentioned need no scarification for germination to take place but do need stratification (cold moist treatment)

    January 14, 2015 at 6:59 am

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