If you see a rambunctious flock of creamy brown birds descend upon a tree or shrub laden with berries this fall, take the opportunity to observe them. These gorgeous birds are Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) and are easily identified by the black mask, sleek crested head and bright yellow tip on the tail. Look closer and you may see hints of red on the wings. The Cedar Waxwing is named for the red waxlike tips on its secondary flight feathers, as well as for its fondness for cedar berries.
Though about 70% of their diet is fruit, Cedar Waxwings also eat insects. In spring and summer these social birds will gather in trees and “hawk” insects by flying out from a perch to snap up their prey on the wing. They often take advantage of mass insect emergences, such as when aquatic larval mayflies emerge as adults by the hundreds and thousands from ponds and streams.
Like most songbirds, Cedar Waxwings feed their nestlings a protein-rich diet of insects, though only for a short time. The diet is changed to mainly fruit while the young are still in the nest. After the nestlings fledge they will join up with other juvenile waxwings and form small flocks. (Juveniles are streaked brown and they do not sport the black mask of the adults, nor the “waxed” wing tips.)
It is in the fall that you are most likely to notice Cedar Waxwings. Besides cedar berries, they will also eat fruit from cherry, dogwood, chokeberry, elderberry, holly, pokeweed, viburnum, mountain-ash, grape, and poison ivy. A flock will gorge itself until a tree, shrub, or vine has been stripped of all fruit. Drunken behavior has been observed in waxwings when they consume too much fermented fruit.
If you have been smart enough to fill your landscape with (native) berry-producing plantings, you may find yourself the host to these lovely, gregarious, avian guests as they revel in your offerings. Enjoy their brief visit, for when the fruit is gone, so are they.