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Art Lander’s Outdoors: The Cedar Waxing’s unique plumage, eating habits most often observed in winter

A lasting image of the Cedar Waxwing is a beautiful tan bird perched amid the dark green leaves of an American Holly tree, eating red berries.

Most often observed here during the cold weather months, the Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) is a nomadic bird that moves irregularly, throughout both its breeding and wintering range, often from year to year, depending on food supplies.

This bird is easily recognizable due to its distinctive plumage and feeding habits.

Geographic Range and Distribution in Kentucky

(Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

The Cedar Waxwing is a year-round resident in Kentucky.

“They do nest here, but it’s spotty,” said Kate Slankard, an avian biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR). “They are uncommon, but we do see them regularly.”

In the winter Cedar Waxwings tend to flock up and move around, often in the company of flocks of American Robins.

According to The Kentucky Breeding Bird Atlas, by Brainard Palmer-Ball Jr., the first nest wasn’t discovered here until 1934, and by the late 1950s, there were fewer than 20 documented nests in the state. But by the 1980s Cedar Waxwings were found in parts of central and western Kentucky where they had never been seen before.

Today, the highest populations are most likely found where they have been most abundant over time — in the northern Bluegrass, Cumberland Plateau and Cumberland Mountains. “They have become more widespread around the state, we see young birds throughout central Kentucky,” said Slankard.

The Cedar Waxwing’s geographic range includes most of Canada, the Lower 48 states, and into Baja California, Mexico and Central America.

Its breeding range includes forested areas of Canada, and the U.S., from Washington and Oregon, east through Idaho, Montana and the Dakotas, the Great Lakes States into New England, and south along the Appalachians, to northern Georgia.

Birds that winter in the South (including Kentucky) may hang around into the spring. Cedar Waxwing sightings often spike here as warm weather returns, when migrants that winter in the southern states, head back northward.

Size and Coloration

The Cedar Waxwing is a medium-sized bird, about six to seven inches long, weighing about 1.1 ounces.

(Photo by Melissa McMasters, by Wikipedia Commons)

Its plumage is silky and shiny, tan, gray, and lemon-yellow. A crest of feathers often lies flat and droops over its head.

Other distinctive features are a stylish black mask, with a thin white border, and brilliant-red wax droplets on the secondary flight feathers on their broad and pointed wings.

Its short, and squarish tail typically has a yellow or orangish tip, depending on its diet. Adults have a pale yellow belly, and a short, wide bill.

Immature birds are streaked on the throat and flanks, and often don’t have the black mask of the adults. Males and females look alike.

Cedar Waxwings can fly up to 25 miles per hour, at an altitude of 2,000 feet, and their flight path is strong, straight, and direct, with no wavering.

Their vocalization includes very high-pitched whistles and buzzy trills. They call often, especially in flight.


This bird’s preferred habitat includes forests, and a mix of semi-open and open lands, with some large trees nearby.

They frequent “edge” cover in rural farmlands and come into town to spend time in wooded suburban parks and backyards, near berry-laden trees, hedges and shrubs.

Food Habits

The preferred food of the Cedar Waxwing is berries, but during the spring and summer they also eat some flowers and will drink oozing sap.

The insects they consume include beetles, caterpillars, and ants. Young nestlings are fed mostly insects at first, then more berries after a few days.

Their diet of berries in Kentucky includes Dogwood, Hackberry, Wild Rose, American Holly, and the blue/purplish berries found on the Eastern Red Cedar, an evergreen which is abundant throughout the Bluegrass Region.

They also eat the red berries on the Eurasian Bush Honeysuckle, which helps spread this invasive, noxious shrub that has invaded Kentucky and surrounding states, and threatens native plants in the understory.

Reproduction and Nesting

(Photo by Jesse Gordon Audubon Society)

In Kentucky, nesting begins in late May, with clutches completed by early June.

Some pairs raise two broods. The late peak of nesting is in July.

Only a small area is defended as territory, so birds may nest near others in small colonies.

In courtship, the male and female may perch close together, posturing, touching bills, and passing berries back and forth.

Their nest is placed on a horizontal limb or in a fork of the tree limb, usually six to 20 feet above the ground, in a small to medium-sized tree, in a semi-open parklike habitat, or along a natural woodland border (edge).

Their nests, built by both sexes, are a loosely-built open cup of grass, weeds, twigs, plant fibers, lined with finer materials such as moss, rootlets, fine grass and hair.

In Kentucky, clutches are typically two to five pale gray to bluish-gray eggs, finely spotted with brown and black.

Incubation by the female averages 12 to 13 days. Both parents feed the nestlings, and young leave the nest about 14 to 18 days after hatching.

Keep a sharp eye out for the Cedar Waxwing, especially towards the end of winter as migrants begin to move back north to their breeding range.

On a late winter hike in the woods, a good place to spot a flock of these birds is in a cedar thicket, where they will be gorging on berries.

The Cedar Waxwing is special to birdwatchers. It’s one of Kentucky’s most beautiful and distinctive native species.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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