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Posts tagged “Bombycilla cedrorum

Some Cedar Waxwings Have Orange Tail Tips

1-23-19 cedar waxwing with orange tail tip_u1a2642Cedar Waxwings can be found in most of New England year-round. They are one of the few North American birds that specializes in eating fruit, particularly in the fall and winter. Unlike the Pine Grosbeak (see 1/16/19 post), which crushes the fruit and consumes only the seeds, Cedar Waxwings eat the whole fruit. If it has fermented, they will feel the effects and, like humans, become somewhat tipsy.

If you look carefully at a flock of Cedar Waxwings you may spot one that has an orange-tipped tail, rather than yellow. This has to do with the bird’s diet. Morrow’s Honeysuckle (Lonicera morrowii) was imported in the late 1800s for use as an ornamental, for wildlife food and cover as well as for soil erosion control, but it is now recognized as an invasive plant. Its fruit contains red pigment in addition to the normal yellow pigment found in honeysuckle berries. If a Cedar Waxwing happens to eat enough of the fruit of Morrow’s Honeysuckle at the time of feather formation (they molt between August and January), its tail feathers will have orange tips instead of the usual yellow. Cedar Waxwings with orange tail tips began appearing in northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada in the 1960’s.

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Cedar Waxwings Feasting on Fruit

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Cedar Waxwings are strictly fruit eaters in the winter, expanding their diet to include insects during the warmer parts of the year. As their name implies, one often finds these birds in areas where there are a lot of cedars, as they’ve historically fed on cedar berries in winter. However, they increasingly rely on the fruit of mountain ash as well as apple, crabapple and hawthorn in the Northeast. Waxwings run the risk of intoxication and even death after eating fermented fruit such as the apples pictured. In recent years Cedar Waxwings have started feeding on the fruits of invasive honeysuckles, a habit which ornithologists feel might be responsible for a shift in waxwing distribution as well as regional population increases.

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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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Cedar Waxwings Conserving Energy

cedar waxwing at oriole nest 241Your eyes are not fooling you. A Cedar Waxwing is visiting a Baltimore Oriole nest. Why? If you had the choice between scouting the landscape for an odd board here and there with which to build your house, or going to a deteriorating, abandoned house and helping yourself to a goldmine of available lumber, which would you choose? The oriole nestlings have fledged — their nest has served its purpose. It’s highly unlikely that the parents would ever use the nest again. Waxwings, which are relatively late nesters, discovered the abandoned nest and are taking advantage of the oriole’s (female builds nest) hours of collecting raw materials. Fiber by fiber a pair of Cedar Waxwings pulled this nest apart and recycled what they removed.

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Juvenile Cedar Waxwings Migrating

Possibly because of the importance of summer fruits in their diet, Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are late nesters, but by late August adults have begun their migration to the southern states and Central America.  This year’s young are beginning this (roughly) 900-mile flight now, a month after their parents have left. You can often find waxwings feeding in crab apple and other fruit trees where they stop over during their flight to refuel.  Juvenile birds lack the sleek look of adults — the red wax-like feather tips for which this bird is named have not developed, and the color of their plumage is much duller than that of the adults.


Cedar Waxwing Feather

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Several of the secondary flight feathers (inner wing feathers) of Cedar Waxwings and Bohemian Waxwings possess tiny, brilliant red tips. (As Dale Martin pointed out, there is a bit of white next to the red tips of Bohemian Waxwings’ feathers, but those who guessed either waxwing should take a bow.) These “waxy droplets” give the bird its common name, along with its love of red cedar berries.  These drops of “wax” are actually the widened, flattened ends of the feather shafts.  The color is derived from a carotenoid pigment, astaxanthin, which they get from their diet (cedar fruit and other berries).  Younger birds possess fewer red tips than older birds. Ornithologist Peter Stettenheim conjectures that since the waxwing’s ability to find berries probably improves with age, the number, size and coloration of these tips may indicate the birds’ foraging ability.  Research in the 1980’s indicates that these red tips serve as markers in mating, providing visual clues to potential mates about each other’s age, which correlateswith egg size, clutch size, as well as ability to find and deliver food.  Cedar Waxwings tend to mate with individuals of their own age.