I had planned to write a different post today, but changed my mind when I caught sight of 100 to 200 cedar waxwings in my Portland yard. Last fall a huge flock was attracted to our two fig trees, laden with ripening fruit well out of our reach. This year only one fig tree is fruiting, but there’s still a mass of succulent food for their hungry mouths. These birds also love berries and I photographed them on a red-flowering currant shrub (Ribes sanguineum) and Cascade Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa), two of many PNW native species that support these birds. Situated near our front door, this currant shrub stops people in their tracks while it’s flowering in March, and now it’s a waxwing magnet. I watched as they eagerly picked off the berries and swallowed them whole.
Cedar waxwings are exquisitely beautiful birds—sleek, with silky, shiny, colorful feathers that softly blend together like a watercolor painting. Adults have a somewhat droopy, ragged crest and that debonair black mask, outlined in white, which makes them so alluring and exciting—as in, where have you been all my life? Males also have black chins and throats, whereas females’ are slightly duller and juveniles’ are streaked. Tail tips are usually yellow, wider in males and narrower in females and juveniles. In my photo you can just barely make out little reddish, waxy tips on the wing feathers, hence the common name. The function of the secretion is not fully known, although it is likely important in courtship. So dashing!
The Bohemian waxwing is similar but slightly larger, with grayish feathers on breast and belly, instead of a soft yellow. They also have white and yellow wing patches, which cedar waxwings lack. According to Seattle Audubon Society, Bohemians are a northern species that migrate down to Washington in winter. The cedar waxwings we see are likely year round residents who travel around in search of food. Both species are monogamous and breed in open, wet areas with dead or downed wood, or in woodlands with mature conifers.
Exceptionally gregarious, these birds are often seen in large flocks, especially in autumn. You may hear them before you see them—they have a very high-pitched, whistle-like trill. They mostly eat sweet fruit and even feed it to their young after a few days of insectivorous cuisine (like the majority of land birds that feed their babies insects). During breeding season waxwings need more protein and show their expert insect-catching abilities in mid-air, often over water. For medium sized, fairly stocky birds (about seven inches in length), they are quite acrobatic. They can also hover in place to grab a bit of fruit when a perch isn’t handy. Insects that live on plants, like scale, are also on their menu.
Waxwings aren’t suffering from habitat loss quite as much as most species, since they can eat increasingly common exotic fruits. However, they “are vulnerable to window collisions as well as being struck by cars as the birds feed on fruiting trees along roadsides,” says the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. But native plants are best for the vast majority of wild species, so to attract waxwings to your Pacific Northwest yard, grow indigenous trees and shrubs that produce small fruits, including serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), madrone (Arbutus menziesii), dogwood (Cornus spp.), western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis), black hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii), honeysuckle (Lonicera ciliosa and L. involucrata), mountain ash (Sorbus sitchensis and S. scopulina) and strawberries (Frageria spp.). Keep your eyes and ears open and look for them in parks, forest edges, open woodlands, and gardens—these beautiful birds could visit your yard, too!