Cedar Waxwing (Ken White photo)

Cedar Waxwing (Ken White photo)

The Nature Nut

Rosamund Pojar

A favourite bird with many people is the Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum). The silky soft plumage tinged grey on the back and yellowish on the breast, the rakish black face mask, and a showy crest on top of the head all suggest a bird dressed to impress. In addition to the tail feathers being tipped with yellow, the wing feathers have red, waxy tips that almost look like someone splattered paint on them. Current research suggests that the waxy tips are an indication of status within the flock and readiness for mate selection. Young birds may have only 5-6 red tips, whereas a bird with over 9 red tips is ready for sex. Pairs of older birds tend to nest earlier and produce more offspring.

The courtship ritual of the Cedar Waxwing is very romantic and delightful to watch. A pair alights on a branch side by side. One is carrying a gift (usually a berry) it its beak which it offers to the other. The second bird takes the gift in its beak, does a quick sideways hop away from and then back towards the first bird and gives the gift back. Then the first bird does a joyful hop back and forth and passes the gift back again. The pair will repeat this ‘dance’ several times as a form of bonding. Sometimes the ‘dance’ is immediately followed by copulation, but not always.

Waxwings are not territorial and tend to move from one food source to another in flocks of varying sizes. Nesting often occurs where there is easy access to food (fruit) and so the birds may be seen nesting close together. I once saw a tree full of nests on the Telkwa High Road.

The Cedar Waxwing flocks will be seen around the valley right through until the late Fall. Then they will leave and go south. Right around this time Bohemian Waxwings will come down in large flocks from their breeding areas in the northern Boreal forests of Canada and Alaska. They go crazy for the many mountain-ash and other berry-bearing shrubs and trees in town. Often the berries are fermented by this time, and it is not unusual to see tipsy waxwings lurching from side to side or even hanging upside down on a branch.

Bohemian waxwings are larger, have additional yellow/white waxy spots on their wings and the undertail feathers are cinnamon coloured. The undertail feathers of Cedar Waxwings are white and the wing feathers do not have yellow spots.