It nests later in the year than robins, cardinals and most other song birds, and sometimes a pair nests individually, sometimes several pairs nest in a small colony. It feeds on the berries of red cedar trees but isn’t likely to be seen in these or any other cedar trees except when they have berries. Finally, its wings aren’t waxy.
This is a little bird, smaller than a robin but not as small as a house sparrow. It’s a brown and gray and yellow little bird with a crest like a cardinal. It’s brown on the head, upper back and breast, gray on the lower back and tail, yellow on the belly, It has a black bill and throat and a black mask from its bill back over its eyes. A white streak separates the black of mask and throat and extends back under the bird’s eyes. Finally, a cedar waxwing has a bright yellow band across the end of its tail, as if its tail had been dipped in yellow paint.
The cedar waxwing does have a sound, a song I suppose to another cedar waxwing. But to me it’s an unmusical lisp, ssst, ssst, ssst, high and soft. It sounds like somebody trying to get my attention without speaking out.
The cedar bird, as it is sometimes called, has a winter range of North America north into southern Canada and south in Mexico and some of the Caribbean Islands. Its summer range, its nesting range, is roughly the northern two-thirds of the contiguous United States and Canada as far north as there are forests.
The waxwing’s summer and winter ranges are nearly as broad as the robins, broader than the starling’s. But that doesn’t mean cedar waxwings are as common as robins or starlings. They’re not as numerous as either robins or starlings and within their ranges they move erratically, unpredictably.
I saw a small flock of cedar waxwings a few days ago in a place I have never seen them before. First time I have seen a cedar waxwing anywhere in two or three months. Yet this was in Indiana, nearly the heart of the summer and interrange of the bird.
Those birds were in the tops of tall oak trees, high overhead. They were feeding like flycatchers, flying out, snatching an insect out of the air, turning and flying back into the trees.
I couldn’t see the insects those birds were catching. Nor could I see the jots of red at the ends of the secondary or inner, shorter wing flight feathers, the characteristic that gives the bird half of its name, waxwing. Those bits of red look like old-fashioned sealing wax.
As for the other half of the name, cedar, these birds feed on the berries of red cedar trees. They eat other berries, too, elderberry, mulberry, hackberry, hawthorn, rose, cherry, wild cherry, honeysuckle, wild grape, pokeweed, persimmon, dogwood, pyracantha. They also eat the berries of poison ivy. Berries make up more of their diet than insects, far more, approximately eighty percent, according to reports by people who studied their habits.
Berries account for the erratic movements of waxwings. They go where the berries are. That included a pyracantha in my parents’ yard. When the berries on that tree were ripe, a flock of cedar waxwings appeared. When the berries were gone, the birds left. Then their pyracantha died and my parents never saw cedar waxwings in the trees of their yard again.
Interesting, but that doesn’t account for the cedar waxwings I saw recently in the crowns of tall oak trees.