Owner of MN Backyard Birds
Minnesota has two waxwing species: the Cedar Waxwing (Bombcyilla cedroum) and Bohemian Waxwing (Bombcyilla garrulous). Both are often found feasting on winter fruits such as mountain ash and flowering crabapple in the Lakes Area. In some years huge flocks of these birds cover fruiting trees by the hundreds or even thousands, stripping the tree of its fruits. For many bird watchers or photographers it’s quite an impressive sight to observe. At first glance it would appear that their wings were dipped in wax, as the name implies.
The Cedar Waxwing is the most common and can be found year-round, compared to the larger Bohemian Waxwing, which is only a winter visitor to the state. The Cedar Waxwing is approximately 7.5” in size with light brown back and chest with a light wash of yellow on the belly becoming white under the tail. A few field marks to look for include a crest atop the head, yellow tips on the tail, black facial mask and the red wax like beads on the wings.
Cedar Waxwings nest late in the season to take advantage of available fruits to feed their young. They prefer to nest near water in wooded or orchard like habitats, and are also very fond of feeding on the fruits of red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) even though it’s not a true fruit but more like a cone. This is fitting to their common name (Cedar Waxwing), and sometimes the birds are just referred to as “Cedars.” Both species are very erratic in their movements as they can be abundant one year to nonexistent the next year. The Cedar Waxwing is often replaced in the north by Bohemian Waxwings come winter.
The Bohemian Waxwing is only found during the winter season, as it is a very nomadic species in search of fruit. First reports in the state often come in December from the Grand Marais area along the North Shore where Mountain Ash is present. In a year when fruit is abundant, birds can number in the hundreds and will pick a tree clean in very short time before moving on to another area. They seem to be “tame” and approachable as they gorge themselves on fruit, paying little attention to anything else. As the fruit goes through the frost and thaw process the fruits become fermented producing alcohol which causes the birds to fly a little awkward.
The Bohemian Waxwing is slightly larger at approximately 8.5” in size, appearing darker in color. Other features are very similar to the Cedar Waxwing. There are two distinct features that will quickly identify the waxwings from each other: the Bohemian has rusty undertail coverts and is more colorful when looking at the “waxy” wing tips. Occasionally they can be found together feeding in the same fruit tree but the differences can be noticeable at close range. Their feeding behaviors are also very similar as they tend to hang or cling to the fruit cluster of the Mountain Ash sometimes going upside down.
The breeding rage for the Bohemian Waxwing extends up to Alaska and Northern Canada. Their preferred habitat is associated with boreal forests of Spruce and Tamarac. Nesting habits also closely resemble the Cedar Waxwing.
Look for fruiting trees like Mountain Ash and flowering Crabapples near parks, schools, cemeteries, hospitals, churches, arboretums and nature centers to find feeding waxwings this winter. Waxwings can sometimes be attracted to your yard by placing out a heated water bath and/or placing frozen fruit out on the ground. You can also plant fruiting trees like the ones above or try planting highbush cranberry, a native shrub that keeps its berries well into winter. I did some birdscaping myself at my new home this past fall, planting two varieties of flowering crabapple and two mountain ash trees.
A few other winter visitors to watch for include Varied Thrush, Townsends Solitaire, Evening Grosbeak and Pine Grosbeak as they also seek out any remaining fruits. Happy Birding!
Judd Brink is the owner of MN Backyard Birds in the Brainerd Lakes area. MN Backyard Birds provides birdscaping for homeowners and businesses to attract and enjoy more colorful songbirds. The business was recently featured on Kare 11 news with Belinda Jensen and MN Bound with Ron Schara. For more information about birdscaping or a free backyard consultation visit birdminnesota.com or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org