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Cedar vs. Bohemian Waxwings

4-18-16bohemian vs. cedar waxwingWorldwide there are three species of waxwings:  Cedar, Bohemian and Japanese.  The first two species occur in North America, and while they share many traits, they also have their differences.  Both species look somewhat alike, in that they both have crests and black eye masks.  Both species also form nomadic, social flocks that are constantly in search of sugary fruit.   However, there are distinct differences in their distribution, size and plumage.

RANGE:  If you’re in the Northeast, and it’s summer, the waxwing you’re looking at almost assuredly is a Cedar Waxwing, as they are permanent residents, breeding and overwintering here.  Bohemian Waxwings breed in northwest Canada and Alaska, and are only seen in the Northeast in the late fall, winter, or early spring, when they extend their range in search of fruit.  Often they will join flocks of cedar waxwings as they feed.  They are an irruptive species, irregularly appearing south of their normal winter range in large numbers.

SIZE:  Even though Bohemian Waxwings are only about an inch longer than Cedar Waxwings, they are nearly double their weight – Bohemians are chunky, Cedars are svelte.

PLUMAGE:  Both of these species have a black eye mask, a yellow (or occasionally orange, due to diet) tail band and frequently red wax at the tip of some of their feathers. The easiest way to distinguish Cedar from Bohemian Waxwings is to look at the color of their undertail feathers (coverts).  Bohemians’ are rust-colored and Cedars’ are white. Bohemian Waxwings have a gray chest and belly, while Cedars have a brownish chest and yellow belly.

At this time of year you can find both species gorging on crab apples, often side by side, though Bohemians are soon to depart for the Northwest.

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Cedar Waxwings Seeking Fruit

2-12-16 cedar waxwing  027Cedar Waxwings can be found year round in northern New England, but the waxwings we see this winter are not necessarily the same birds that were nesting here last summer. May through September Cedar Waxwings can be found nesting throughout New England. Come fall, most Cedar Waxwings migrate an average of 880 miles in a southerly direction. Thus, many of the waxwings we see in winter are probably Canadian breeders.

Once on their wintering grounds, Cedar Waxwings tend to wander in flocks in search of sugary fruits to eat. In recent years, they have relied increasingly on crops of ornamental fruit trees such as crabapple, hawthorn and mountain ash. In the summer, you see Cedar Waxwings regularly if they are nesting in your area, whereas if you see them one winter day, you may very well not see them the following day, unless there is an ample supply of fruit nearby. Once they discover a food source, be it fruit on a single tree or an orchard full of fruit, these nomads usually descend, strip and eat the fruit until the branches are bare and then depart for greener (or redder) pastures.

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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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