Cedar waxwings are a favorite of birdwatchers across North and Central America.
They fly in flocks as berries mature to provide homeowners with a visual delight.
They aren’t great singers (their call is closer to a whistle than to a song), but they are beautiful birds that repay your hospitality by eating insects and addling color around berry bushes.
To attract cedar waxwings, it helps to know cedar waxwings, so this article will have two parts.
First we will tell you everything you need to know about cedar waxwings to keep them happy in your backyard.
Then we will give you a step-by-step program for making cedar waxwings part of your landscape.
Get to Know Cedar Waxwings
Most birdwatchers won’t have any trouble recognizing cedar waxwings.
Over most of their bodies, they have silky feathers of brown, gray, and lemon yellow, with drops of red on their wings.
Their tail feathers can be brown or orange, depending on how many berries they eat. Honeysuckle berries will give them orange tail feathers. The tail is short and squared off.
A waxwing’s crest looks something like a mullet. It naturally lies flat so it droops over the back of the waxwing’s head.
Adult cedar waxwings have black masks with thin white borders; younger birds don’t have the mask.
Cedar waxwings fly like they know where they are going.
Their flight patterns are strong and direct. When they are migrating, they fly at a speed of 25 mph (40 kph) at an altitude of about 2,000 feet (600 meters).
The good news for birdwatchers is that once you have made one cedar waxwing happy, you may get a whole flock.
Cedar waxwings are non-competitive birds that like to travel in large numbers. They don’t fight over territory. They will even groom each other.
Cedar waxwings will greet each other by rubbing their breasts against each other, and feed each other berries and grapes.
Cedar waxwings “ask for a date” with a hopping dance. The male will hop toward a female. If she is interested, she will hop back.
During courtship, the male will bring the female flower petals, offer them and pull them back until eventually the female eats them.
A really serious male suitor may offer a female cedar waxwing a bug.
Some important distinctions from other birds
If you are new to birdwatching, it helps to know that cedar waxwings communicate anxiety with their crest feathers.
Molting robins look a lot like cedar waxwings. You can easily tell the difference by their sounds.
Cedar waxwings will make a short, high-pitched, thin whistle that sounds like see or sree that is just a half-second long. A robin’s call is deeper, lower, and sounds more like a rattle.
Backyard visitor or permanent resident?
Location is everything in attracting cedar waxwings to your backyard landscape. Cedar waxwings can be migratory birds, but there are locations they make their permanent home.
These birds breed and raise their young in Canada, almost as far north as Labrador and Hudson Bay.
They can be found year-round across the northern half of the United States and southern Ontario, but they may seek winter shelter anywhere in the southern half of the United States south to Central America.
Cedar waxwings like to live at the edge of open forests. They prefer to locate near berry bushes, but not near dense underbrush. They will always seek a reliable source of fresh water.
In urban areas, cedar waxwings like parks and backyards with well-spaced trees and berry bushes between them. They are attracted to the sound of running water, like a bubbling fountain or a recirculating stream.
Cedar waxwings are attracted to these features any time of year. If you live in the northern half of the United States and you want to keep them in your yard year-round, then you need to provide your cedar waxwings with them year-round.
What cedar waxwings eat
Cedar waxwings are voracious eaters. They get their name from the fact that they eat cedar berries. Cedar berries are not, however, their only food.
Cedar waxwings eat insects and a variety of plant foods, although they prefer berries of all kinds. They prefer berries with a high sugar content. If a berry is sweet enough that you would like it, chances are that cedar waxwings would like it, too.
In the summer, cedar waxwings catch and eat flying insects. While they prefer to catch insects in mid-flight, they will forage bugs on the ground to take to their young as high-energy food. However, even young cedar waxwings like berries.
Cedar waxwing nesting habits
Cedar waxwings are like goldfinches in that they are oblivious to mating and nesting until all the other birds have laid their eggs, raised their young, and moved on.
They won’t even look for a nesting site until July, and they may not build a nest before August.
Because cedar waxwings feed their hatchlings high-fat, energy-packed beetles, they like to build their nests in second-growth forests.
Decaying logs that host grubs and beetles form a hunting ground for them. They eat adult beetles that are capable of flight, rather than the grub.
The adults still need berries for themselves, so they will look for a combination of widely spaced trees for shelter, berry-bearing plants to feed the adults, and a supply of insects for their young.
Cedar waxwings will use bird houses when they can’t find a suitable location in trees. They build their nests at least 6 feet (2 meters) above ground level and frequently 20 feet (6 meters) up a tree, sometimes higher.
Cedar waxwing nests are loosely constructed of grass and twigs. Ornithologists estimate it can take the cock and hen 2,500 round trips to the nesting site to gather enough materials to build a nest.
You can encourage them to nest in your backyard by providing them with soft nesting materials. (We’ll have more on that later.) The female may scavenge materials from abandoned nests of other birds to save time.
A cedar waxwing nest is round and usually 5 or 6 inches (12 to 16 cm) across. The female lays five or six eggs.
The eggs are oval with a smooth surface and not a lot of gloss. Cedar waxwing eggs are blue or blue-gray with brown or grayish-brown spots.
The hen incubates the eggs for 11 to 13 days, and young cedar waxwings leave the nest 14 to 18 days after they hatch.
Both parents take care of their young. Cedar waxwings usually raise two broods every year.
Attracting Cedar Waxwings, Step by Step
If you have trees, berries, and water, you can provide a home for cedar waxwings. Here’s how to start.
Create a forest edge
Cedar waxwings like to live at the edge of a forest, not deep in a forest.
If you have woods behind or in your backyard, remove enough trees that you have an unobstructed line of sight to the edge of the woods.
But don’t cut down adlers, dogwoods, maples, or cedar trees, where cedar waxwings prefer to roost and nest.
If you live in the cedar waxwing’s summer range, put up a birdhouse
There is no better way to ensure constant viewing of cedar waxwings than to provide them with their nesting site — at least for a couple of months in late summer and early fall, if you live in their breeding range Canada up to the sixtieth parallel or in the northern United States.
To accommodate a nest that is 5 or 6 inches (12 to 16 cm) across, your birdhouse will need to have a floor of about 8 inches by 8 inches (20 cm by 20 cm).
Cedar waxwings are medium-sized birds, so they can enter and exit through a half-inch (15 mm) round hole, preferably about 10 inches (25 cm) above the base of the bird house.
Your cedar waxwing bird house should be about 14 inches (35 cm) tall. A hinged roof makes observation and cleaning easier.
If you mount your birdhouse on a platform, it’s OK for it to be just 6 feet (about 2 meters) above the ground.
Put a baffle on the pole holding up the birdhouse to deter squirrels and snakes. Place the birdhouse where it won’t be stalked by cats or wild animals waiting for a baby bird to fall out.
Keep in mind that your cedar waxwings will need food for themselves and their babies while they are in their birdhouse.
The birdhouse needs to be placed near bushes or fruit trees that will be bearing mature fruit while the birds are living there.
Don’t be surprised if cedar waxwings choose to build their nests in nearby trees even if you build them a birdhouse.
Because cedar waxwings also feed on tree sap and insects that live in trees, they may prefer a more natural setting.
Put out the materials cedar waxwings can use to build their nests
Cedar waxwings will make quick use of hair, wool, cotton balls, yarn, screen, or bits and pieces of soft cloth to line their nests.
You can offer these materials from the fork of a tree or a suet feeder (without the suet).
Feeding your cedar waxwings
Sometimes hundreds of waxwings will descend on a single berry-bearing bush or fruit tree with ripe fruit in late summer or fall.
You can spend hours watching them pass berries to each other and tossing fruit up in the air to see which bird will catch it.
If your objective is to see hundreds of cedar waxwings at once, you will need a berry patch or orchard you don’t harvest and a lot of patience, since there’s no way to know when a nomadic flock of cedar waxwings will arrive to feast on your fruit and berries.
But if your objective is to attract a mating pair or a small number of cedar waxwings to your property, you can attract them by planting the bushes and trees that produce their favorite foods.
Cedar trees make a great hedgerow. Plant them in a zigzag pattern rather than in a straight line to attract more cedar waxwings.
Cherry trees will be more productive if you plant them where they will receive full sun. They should be about 12 feet (4 meters) from the edge of a wooded area to attract a maximum number of cedar waxwings.
Chokecherries will grow in almost any kind of soil, but they don’t like wet roots.
Cotoneasters will grow in partial shade, but they need steady moisture.
Dogwoods are a good choice if you can’t avoid planting in shade. They are a beautiful understory plant that is stressed by full sun.
European mountain ash, which are related to roses, peaches, and stone fruits, produce a plethora of red berries in the summer that remain on the tree even when the leaves fall in the fall. They need to grow in full sun.
Grape vines grow into existing trees. You don’t need to plant them as if you were starting a vineyard, although cedar waxwings will gather at vineyards, too.
Hackberry trees will feed a variety of wildlife, not just cedar waxwings. If unchecked, they can become invasive.
Junipers are a good choice if you have dry, shallow, or rocky soil.
You can plant mistletoe on apple trees. Be aware that they will sap moisture and nutrients from their host tree.
Privet hedges grow tall fast. They are a great place for cedar waxwings to nest.
Pyracantha are a great source of nutrition for cedar waxwings in the winter. They grow best in full sun but will grow as an understory plant.
Strawberries are a favorite food of waxwings. You can always just leave the bird netting off a bed you don’t need for personal production.
Yews will grow in shade. They provide both food and shelter for cedar waxwings.
You will get the best results by providing cedar waxwings with both food and shelter plants. Plant near and along the edges of a wooded area.
It’s fine to offer cedar waxwings a fresh fruit buffet from a platform feeder in the summer.
They will enjoy the same fruits and berries that humans do. Don’t feed cedar waxwings store-bought fruit in the fall unless you plan to feed them throughout the winter. Don’t discourage migration.
Water for Cedar Waxwings
All birds need water, but cedar waxwings are attracted to the sound of running water.
A bird bath that makes sounds that can be heard from 10 feet (3 meters) away is optimal for attracting these birds.
Heating your bird bath is an inducement or cedar waxwings to stay with you throughout the winter.
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