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Cedar Waxwing (What Time is it in Nature)

May 16, 2015

Today’s What Time is it in Nature is brought to you by Terra Meares, citizen science volunteer and former intern at Prairie Ridge.   Thanks, Terra!

It is a wonderful time for bird activity and birdwatching here at Prairie Ridge!  If you listen, closely you can hear the shrill chatter of the many Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) lurking in the trees.

Cedar Waxwing adult

Cedar Waxwings are sleek and shiny birds that range from 6 to 7 inches long and weigh about 30 grams.  They have large crested heads that are pale brown, which fades to soft gray along the body and a short, wide bill.  They also have dark masks outlined in white on their faces that are characteristic of the Cedar Waxwing.  The bellies of these birds are pale yellow, while the wings are soft gray with bright yellow tips on their squared tails.  The secondary wing feathers have unusual red waxy deposits on the tips, but their purpose is not known.  Male and females Cedar Waxwing look alike, though juveniles are mottled gray-brown with black masks and yellow tail-bands like the adults.  As the bird ages, the red waxy wingtips increase in both number and size.

Cedar Waxwings can be found in the northern United States year round and in the southern half of the United States into Mexico in the winter.  During the summer they fly north to Canada for breeding.  They prefer open deciduous, coniferous, or mixed woodlands, especially those along streams or in shrubby areas that produce berries.  They are also present in grasslands, sagebrush, wetlands, and residential areas.  The main food source for these birds are fruits such as serviceberries, strawberries, mulberries, raspberries, Russian olive fruits, honeysuckle, and cedar berries, which their name comes from.  Cedar Waxwings will also feed on insects during the summer for protein, including mayflies, dragonflies, and leaf beetles.  Because their diet is so high in fruit, they are susceptible to alcohol intoxication if they consume too many fermented berries.  Severe intoxication can even lead to death.

Both the males and females choose the site for nesting, but the females build the nests using twigs, grasses, blossoms, hair, and even materials from the nests of other birds.  The nests are about 5 inches across and 3 inches high and are placed in the horizontal forks of trees such as maples, pines, red cedar, white cedar, and hawthorn.  Females lay between 2 to 6 pale blue or blue-gray eggs that are occasionally spotted.  They incubate the eggs for about 12 days and then brood them for another 3 days.  During this time, the male is in charge of bringing food to the nest.  The nestlings will stay with the parents for about 21 to 25 days, upon which they will leave to join a flock of other young birds.  Cedar Waxwings are highly social and will form large flocks that often nest close together.

The Cedar Waxwings enjoy the delicious berries that are currently abundant on the mulberries at Prairie Ridge.  Whether attending a Citizen Science event on Saturday to watch birds and their nests or spending a relaxing afternoon taking a stroll along the trails, make sure to look for the beautiful Cedar Waxwings on your next trip out!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation.Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photo by Chris Goforth)

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