Birds & Birding

Waxwings Really Have Wax Wings

February 27, 2017

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Cedar Waxwing. Photo © Seabamirum / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

Cedar Waxwings are a favorite of many birders and backyard naturalists. With their fuzzy-looking crests and sharp color accents, they’re dapper looking birds. A large flock of them picking through berries is always entertaining to watch. I count myself a member of the Waxwing Fan Club.

But what’s in a name? Why is it called a waxwing?

That’s pretty simple: Cedar Waxwings really have wax wings. The bright red, visible on the wing feathers of some waxwings, is actually waxy red secretions.

What’s the purpose of the wax? That question seems more difficult to answer. Many ornithological sites state that the purpose remains unclear.

Dave Mehlman, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Migratory Bird Program, often fields questions about various bird species. The Migratory Bird Program works to identify networks of habitat needed by bird species throughout North America, Latin America and the Caribbean. Then, they develop plans and implement strategies to help conserve them at the local level.

Recently, Mehlman was asked about the purpose of those wax wings. He shared what he found with me:

The red wax tips are appendages on the bird’s secondary feathers. They’re colored by astaxanthin, a carotenoid pigment.

This close-up on the wing of a Bohemian Waxwing highlights the red wax tips - a characteristic they share with the Cedar Waxwing. Photo by Amphis on Wikimedia in the Public Domain
This close-up on the wing of a Bohemian Waxwing highlights the red wax tips – a characteristic they share with the Cedar Waxwing. Photo by Amphis on Wikimedia in the Public Domain

While it was originally thought that the red tips functioned to protect the feathers from wear and tear, there is little to no evidence for this hypothesis.

Rather, red secondary tips appear to be status signals that function in mate selection. Rare individuals have been noted with yellow waxy tips on secondary feathers.

Photo © Stuart Seeger / Flickr through a Creative Commons license
Photo © Stuart Seeger / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

Interestingly, the red appendages of Cedar Waxwings increase in number and size with a bird’s age: individuals with zero to five waxy tips are presumable immature birds, while those with greater than nine are thought to be older.

Individuals within these two categories tend to associate as mates. Pairs of older birds (those with greater than nine waxy tips) nest earlier and raise more young than do immature birds, suggesting that this plumage characteristic is an important signal in mate choice and social organization.

Mehlman says this all suggests that waxwings evolved the red wax secretions as plumage enhancements to signal their age, maturity and social status among waxwings. This is a useful signal in a species that often is found in large flocks.

There is another interesting color phenomenon among Cedar Waxwings. These birds also have a striking yellow tail tip, but in some parts of their range some birds began appearing with orange tail tips in the 1960s.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

The orange color is the result of a red pigment picked up from the berries of an introduced species of honeysuckle. If a waxwing eats enough of the berries while it is growing a tail feather, the tip of the feather will be orange. 

And about those berries: Cedar Waxwings specialize in eating fruit, an interesting adaptation among North American birds. While we think of many birds as dining on berries, in reality berries are only ever a portion of their diets. Cedar Waxwings can exist solely on berries for months.

A Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) eating berries at Mount Porte Crayon in West Virginia. Photo © Kent Mason
A Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) eating berries at Mount Porte Crayon in West Virginia. Photo © Kent Mason

In fact, when that well-known nest parasite the Brown-headed Cowbird lays its egg in a Cedar Waxwing nest, the young cowbird has difficulty surviving. The high fruit diet is not conducive to a young cowbird’s growth and prosperity.

Sometimes, Cedar Waxwings eat berries that have fermented on the vine, leading to inebriated behavior from the birds.

Come summer, waxwings are often seen hunting insects. In fact, when I’m fly fishing a heavy mayfly hatch, I’ll often see them snatching the small insects as they hover over the water.

Even our common backyard birds are full of surprises. Enjoy their antics, and remember that your observations can often contribute to bird research and conservation.

Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) photographed at Mt. Port Crayon in West Virginia. Photo © Kent Mason
Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) photographed at Mt. Port Crayon in West Virginia. Photo © Kent Mason
Matt Miller

Matt Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and editor of the Cool Green Science blog. A lifelong naturalist and outdoor enthusiast, he has covered stories on science and nature around the globe. Matt has worked for the Conservancy for the past 14 years, previously serving as director of communications for the Idaho program. More from Matt

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50 comments

  1. How amazing and very informative I loved reading about this amazing little bird.

  2. These are stunning birds. I think the overall coloration is wonderful. In a class of flash with the wood duck.

  3. There are loads of pyracantha and toyon berries in my valley but it’s woefully barren of waxwings….I sure wish they would visit!

  4. I am a member of the Waxwing fan club too! Here in the north valley of N. Calif. they come migrate in large flocks from I have no idea where. My yard is usually full of them feeding on privet berries.

  5. Fascinating. This theory would imply that the birds can count (the number of waxy tips) in order to select an appropriate mate, or otherwise visually perceive the presence of more red tips. That’s a very detailed level of visual sensitivity. What kind of evidence do we have for their perception process? Are there other species that discern plumage differences with that degree of refinement?

    Do waxwing individuals mate for multiple seasons? If so, perhaps a pair’s red tips increase each year together.

    I’ve always thought cedar waxwings surpassingly beautiful birds. It is magical when a flock passes through.

  6. To Matt Miller:
    On February 27 and 28 in Cleveland, Tennessee, flocks of Cedar Waxwings completely ‘cleaned out’ all the red berries on our cluster of three holly bushes in our front yard. The first day I stood near the bushes and took photos with my Nikon COOLPIX L840 camera with a 38x optical zoom, 16 mp. The flurry of activity made it difficult to focus on any one bird, but managed to get three I consider worth keeping. The second day it rained. The birds came but I didn’t. One photo is of a yearling with no red wing tips. The other two have the red tips, which I read come at age two and older. I was interested in this very informative article about the number of tips and their significance. I would like to send you my three photos, if you are interested. Thank you. Helen Burton / helenburtongraphics@gmail.com

  7. Wow-very interesting. They are so regal. Flocks visit the vineyards in Oregon during harvest-needless to say many farmers aren’t thrilled with their arrival. 🙂

  8. I understand that when a flock of Cedar Waxwing eat a lot of Nandina berries, that grow in bunches, that there is a toxin in the berries when eaten one at a time, will not harm the birds, but because the C.W. eat a lot at once, that it kills them. They come to my Hawthorne trees and take all the small red berries (which are really tiny apples] at once. So much fun to watch them!

  9. Our mountain ash trees are a favorite winter food of the beautiful waxwings. Back yard habitat works for many wildlife species.

  10. Do the berries of the Nandina domestica really kill cedar wax wings?

  11. Really fascinating information on one of my favorite birds to learn more about! Thank you, Matt!!!

  12. Fascinating! We had a Cedar Waxwing pair nest in our Maple tree very close to our house a few years ago and they successfully raised 3 chick’s that Summer! They incorporated bright wool into their nest that I had put out for the birds to use. They been here also early Summer to eat the Maple tree blossoms!
    The Bohemian waxwings mostly, show up here in January-February to eat the seeds in Mountain Ash berries when they are available.

  13. I once I saw a large flight of cedar waxwings settle in two blooming apple trees. The feasted on the blossoms with great enthusiasm. Perfect food for such abbeautiful bird.

  14. Mine visit our juniper tree for the berries. It makes the tree look alive with so many birds flitting up through the branches.

  15. I learned so much about this beautiful bird. I will pass on the Mayfly observation to my grandson who is a novice fly fisherman!
    Thank you!

  16. There have been recent articles here about a flock of Waywings whose death at the local high school was attributed to the berries of Nandina .Is this common and are there other berries (such as Oriental Bittersweet)which are also toxic to them?

  17. I get a flock every year that hang out in an older Norway Spruce. They seem to be feeding on something in it. Could it be the seeds in the cones?

  18. Sadly found a dead Cedar Waxing at my house. It had no “wax” on the wings. Immature no doubt. I wonder if the need of a signal of maturity and mating potential is more important since they flock in such great numbers.

    They love ligustrum berries sadly because ligustrum is an invasive plant!

  19. Great post Matt, really enjoyed it and I always love discovering something new.
    So pleased to be introduced to your blog.

  20. I think I know the answer. I am a Biology graduate so I believe I am right. Huehue

    The answer is pretty simple: they use the wax to style/brush-up their crest. Most crests are like a mohawk or is very messy, right? But theirs aren’t because they wax it.

    Boom.

    Mind Blown.

  21. Mother Nature knew exactly the right things to do, and the purpose for all things in all living beings and things in our environments.

  22. Very rare in my neck of the woods in Pennsylvania to see a The Cedar Waxwing but several years ago The was a group eating berries in the woods near my house. I feed the birds so I am always on the lookout for the uncommon species to pass by.. Always exciting to see a rarity.

  23. I love all animal’s, nature was given by god and to us to cherish, all species in nature, to protect by voice
    the given right’s of life in these times where not all people enjoy what god gave us in nature today

    THE BEAUTY OF WILD LIFE, THE BIRD’S, THE DEER AND SO ON, WE NEED TO TEACH OUR CHILDREN ALL OF THE BEAUTY ‘S IN NATURE, AS I QUOTED THAT GOD GAVE US, TO ENJOY
    NATURE OF WHAT IT IS, WHY IT IS, THE EXPLANATION IS ALWAY’S THERE,IF NOT THE LIBRARIES
    OF TODAY HAVE IT, THIS WEB SITE IS A GREAT KNOWLEDGE FOR ALL KIND’S OF QUESTION’S &
    ANSWER’S IN THE STORIES THEY DESCRIBE.

  24. “Years ago a large flock of waxwings discovered our pyracantha which was covered with berries. They ate until some of them couldn’t fly. I thought that they had just eaten so much that they couldn’t take off, but maybe the berries had fermented, as you say in the article.

  25. People often justify planting or keeping invasive Chinaberry trees by stating that the fruit is good for Cedar Waxwings. Perhaps the author could comment on that? After all, the Chinaberry has poisonous bark, leaves and berries and changes the acidity of the soil. It often reduces the number of plant species in an area with its dominance and this consequently reduces the animal variety while favoring the Cedar Waxwing.

  26. Article does not indicate range of the cedar waxwing. Please tell us.

  27. Matt – Love the Waxwing and yes they can get high on berries. Great the work you do.
    Jen’s Aunt Leona

  28. I love this article…and love those Cedar Waxwings. What kind of berries do they eat? I’d like to plant some of these bushes or trees on my property. I live on the Connecticut River and see them eating wild berries, but we’re about 25 ft. up and can’t see them well.
    Thank you.

  29. Here in my neighborhood of north Idaho, I have enjoyed mainly hearing the high shrilling sounds from flocks of waxwings that frequent the area through the winter as we have many mountain ash trees in the area.
    Thanks you for sharing this information.
    Pat Bentley
    Hayden, Idaho

  30. Beautiful Bird! I never saw one on Long Island, they look like they would be in the same family as the Cardinal? I hope with the direction this country is going away from protecting the environment that they survive for future generations to observe…

  31. I too am a huge fan of cedar waxwings. I never really saw them in my yard in Washington, DC until I planted 3 allegheny serviceberry trees and now we are graced with a flock coming in to eat the berries every year. The native serviceberry is such a beautiful multi-stemmed understory tree with gorgeous white blossoms in the Spring and great reds and oranges when the leaves turn in the autumn.

  32. I had a flock visit my mulberry tree in Shreveport LA one year. They stayed about a week and were eating the fruit all day, rain and shine. There were so many they filled the tree. I had two metal trash cans under that tree and there were so many bird droppings, it sounded like it was raining. I never saw any in that tree again. They were mesmerizing.

  33. So enjoyed watching them catching insects over the river in north central Idaho.

  34. Cedar Waxwing bird was the first bird I saw through a spotting scope in a neighbor’s tree. I had no idea
    that it had a yellow – tipped tale or red wing tips. I saw both through my Kiowa spotting scope which was a great thing to see. I had a greater appreciation for spotting scopes after that first great discovery.
    That was 25 years ago and I’m still birdwatching.

    Rebecca L.

  35. I have often seen Cedar Waxwings when they migrate in the spring, although I have yet to see any this year. They especially like the fruit of the Mountain Ash tree. Since the berries have been on the tree all winter, in the spring they are often fermented. As a result, the birds become inebriated and I have seen them topple over when they gorge on the berries.

  36. Extremely enlightening. thank you! Such gorgeous creatures! I love their vivid colors. “Dapper” is a very apt description of these birds.

  37. The Cedar Waxwings visit our yard in northern Illinois every fall to eat the wild elderberries. The flock arrives to perch in the sixty foot+ poplar trees and then come down to feast on the berries. Though other birds are in the flock, they don’t eat the elderberries

  38. If waxwings hawk insects in summer, presumably during reproductive season, why wouldn’t ‘brood parasite’ cowbirds survive on insects and berries? Phainopeplas, etc add insects to their berry diet while feeding young, and they may also be the victims of cowbird parasitism, no?

  39. We had a cedar waxwing this winter that would take 1 peanut (from a handful thrown out for blue jays) every morning. If we forgot to put them out, s/he would wait patiently on the deck.