Calling all Observers: Be on the lookout for Cedar Waxwings!
Have you ever seen a beautifully colored bird dining on a feast of berries? Then you are likely looking at a Cedar Waxwing, a type of bird typically found in wooded areas and near farms, orchards and suburban homes where berry trees and bushes are plentiful. They have a large head with a short neck and bill and are adorned with a variety of colors. Cedar Waxwings have brown heads that fade to gray on their wingtips, yellow bellies, a black face mask outlined in white and their namesake waxy red tips on the end of their wings.
“At this time of year, Lake Erie Nature & Science Center receives many calls asking about these birds because it is their peak nesting season,” said Wildlife Rehabilitation Coordinator Amy LeMonds. “Cedar Waxwings are unique because they are very social birds that tend to flock and dine together. Wherever one Cedar Waxwing can be found, there are bound to be more.”
A distinctive part of the Cedar Waxwing’s diet is their love for berries and their ability to eat them whole, including seeds. Cedar Waxwings are one of the few birds in North America that eat fruit and can even live on fruit alone for a few months at a time. Sometimes they accidentally eat berries that have begun to ferment, causing them to become intoxicated and in some cases even die from alcohol poisoning.
According to LeMonds, Lake Erie Nature & Science Center has fielded calls about large groups of these birds falling over on the ground or out of the sky, drunk from eating fermented berries. There have even been recent instances of this behavior in the national news.
Despite their fancy for fruit, berries are not the only component of the Cedar Waxwing’s diet. They also fly over water looking for insects to catch. Baby Cedar Waxwings in particular need to eat bugs to maintain proper calcium levels.
“Sometimes people feed baby Cedar Waxwings berries thinking that they are helping their development, when in fact they are hindering it,” LeMonds said. “Cedar Waxwing babies cannot receive enough calcium from eating berries alone and as a result can suffer bone deformation.”
Not only do they have unique feeding habits, but Cedar Waxwings also perform unusual mating rituals. During courtship, males and females will hop toward each other, alternating back and forth and occasionally touching bills. Males will typically pass a small item such as a berry, insect or flower petal to the female who will hop away and then return the item to the male. This strange dance is repeated a few times until the female eats the gift.
When nest building, the male and female both search for a good location, but it is ultimately the female’s decision to choose a nesting spot. Females also do almost all of the nest construction, which can take up to 5-6 days and may require up to 2,500 individual trips to the nest. Their nests are constructed of twigs, grass, cattails, string, horsehair and even remnants of other birds’ nests.
Cedar Waxwing populations are increasing throughout their range and they are not currently a species of concern. If you have any questions about Cedar Waxwings or other wildlife, please contact Lake Erie Nature & Science Center at 440-871-2900.
Joanna Galysh is a Community Relations intern at Lake Erie Nature & Science Center.