are cedar waxwing birds rare

Pennsylvania is home to an amazing array of bird diversity. As of 2024, over 430 species of birds have been reported from the Keystone state – a fair portion of which are consistently encountered. Of those species, there are a handful who elicit a great deal of appreciation from outdoor enthusiasts. Some, like the Long-eared Owl, are revered due to their rarity and cryptic nature. Others, like the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, are beloved for their tiny stature and exceptional physical abilities. There are some, however, whose praises are sung simply because they’ve got the looks. Of that subset of birds, there is one whose beauty might trump all others. They’re called Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), and in this article, I’d like to supplement those praises by highlighting some of their ecology and natural history. There’s more to this species than just immaculate looks. Let’s delve deeper.

Cedar Waxwings belong to the monogeneric (containing only one genus) Bombycillidae family whose closest relatives are the silky flycatchers (Ptiliogonatidae). Neither family is particularly diverse, and there are actually only 3 species of waxwing in the entire world. Of the waxwings, Cedar Waxwings are by far the most commonly encountered in Pennsylvania. Bohemian Waxwings have also been reported but it’s a relatively rare bird to see here. Waxwings get their name from the waxy red tips found on some of their secondary wing feathers, which can be difficult to spot. The “cedar” portion of their name stems from their close relationship with cedars, or juniper trees.

Unlike most songbirds, the diet of Cedar Waxwings is made up largely of fruit throughout the year. They will supplement their diet with protein-rich insects during the summer, but the fruit of various plant species meets their nutritional needs for most of the year. One type of fruit that they’re particularly fond of is the juniper “berry” produced by members of the Juniperus genus. They aren’t true berries, hence the quotation marks, but they’re round, bright fruit that are beloved by Cedar Waxwings nonetheless.

The most common juniper in this part of the country is the Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), which can be found in open meadows, along hedgerows in agricultural lands, and in a variety of other habitats too. During winter, it isn’t uncommon to come across Eastern Red Cedars that are covered in dozens of hungry Cedar Waxwings. Cedar Waxwings often have to compete with other species like American Robins for juniper berries, but as we’ll discuss next, Cedar Waxwings aren’t all that competitive.

Most birds, and especially songbirds, are territorial for at least a portion of the year. Typically during the breeding season, songbirds will establish territories by broadcasting calls and elaborate songs, and will even chase other birds around should they wander too close to their resources. Cedar Waxwings, however, aren’t like other songbirds in that they’re considered to be non-territorial. Even during the breeding season, Cedar Waxwings rarely show aggression towards conspecifics (members of the same species) or other species for that matter.

Because their placement on the landscape is dictated by an abundance of fruit, they’re often on the move flocking from patch to patch, leaving little need to establish territories. Cedar Waxwings are gregarious nomads, in the truest sense.

Their pursuit of fruit often lands them in urban and suburban neighborhoods, where their dietary affinities can become a little problematic with respect to conservation. In urban and suburban settings, there’s often no shortage of fruit-bearing invasive plants. And while many birds have been found to favor fruit produced by native species over fruit produced by non-native species, that preference is only appreciable in instances where native species are present. Unfortunately, native fruit bearing plants such as various dogwoods, viburnums, and hawthorns are often missing in urban/suburban settings and replaced by non-native, ornamental, and often invasive species such as Japanese Honeysuckle, Japanese Barberry, Privet, and Buckthorn. Hence, Cedar Waxwings moving through cities and suburbs often consume the fruit of invasive species and may aid in the spread of those species.

That being said, the spread of invasive species via bird droppings isn’t exclusive to Cedar Waxwings. Many other birds eat invasive fruit and furthermore, the ability of birds to spread invasive species, whether it be via eating the fruit or seeds sticking to their feathers, is often context dependent. Areas with high levels of disturbance are more susceptible to invasive species establishing via birds than intact forests are. Like many problems in conservation, the Cedar Waxwing and invasive species conundrum stems from the much larger issue that is the destruction of our natural areas and the loss of native plants.

I hope this article has added to your appreciation of the Cedar Waxwing. They have a pretty large fandom, but their ecology and natural history is often eclipsed by their stunning looks. If you’re interested in helping Cedar Waxwings, I’d recommend planting some native viburnums, dogwoods, hawthorns, serviceberries, and of course, Eastern Red Cedars. You can encourage your local governments to do the same as well.

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Throughout the year, Cedar Waxwings consume a lot of fruit, unlike most other songbirds. Throughout the summer, they will add protein-rich insects to their diet, but for the majority of the year, the fruit of different plant species suffices to meet their nutritional needs. They especially enjoy the juniper “berry,” which is produced by members of the Juniperus genus. Despite not being true berries—hence the quote marks—these are round, vibrant fruits that Cedar Waxwings adore.

Nevertheless, Cedar Waxwings are not the only birds that use bird droppings to spread invasive species. Many other birds consume invasive fruit, and in addition, birds’ capacity to disperse invasive species depends frequently on the circumstances, whether it be through eating the fruit or seeds adhering to their feathers. High disturbance areas are more vulnerable than intact forests to invasive species spreading through birds. As with many conservation-related issues, the larger problem of our natural areas being destroyed and native plants disappearing is the root cause of the Cedar Waxwing and invasive species conundrum.

Their fruit-seeking tendencies frequently bring them into urban and suburban areas, where their dietary preferences can pose some conservation challenges. Invasive plants that bear fruit are common in urban and suburban environments. Furthermore, while it has been observed that many birds prefer fruit from native species over fruit from non-native species, this preference is only noticeable when native species are present. Regrettably, non-native, ornamental, and frequently invasive species like Japanese Honeysuckle, Japanese Barberry, Privet, and Buckthorn frequently replace native fruit-bearing plants like various dogwoods, viburnums, and hawthorns in urban and suburban settings. As a result, when Cedar Waxwings travel through suburbs and cities, they frequently eat the fruit of invasive plants, which could contribute to the spread of those plants.

I hope that this post has increased your understanding of the Cedar Waxwing. They have a sizable fan base, but their beauty frequently overshadows their ecology and natural history. I would suggest planting some native viburnums, dogwoods, hawthorns, serviceberries, and of course, Eastern Red Cedars if you’re interested in supporting Cedar Waxwings. Additionally, you can urge the local governments in your area to follow suit.

Pennsylvania is home to an amazing array of bird diversity. By 2024, over 430 bird species were known to have been recorded from the Keystone state, with many of them being regularly seen. There are a few of those species that outdoor enthusiasts find particularly endearing. Certain birds, like the Long-eared Owl, are valued because they are uncommon and mysterious. Some, like the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, are adored for their extraordinary physical prowess despite their small size. However, there are some people who are praised just for their appearance. There is one bird in that subgroup whose beauty may outshine all others. They go by the name Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), and I hope to add to those compliments in this piece by highlighting a few aspects of their natural history and ecology. There’s more to this species than just immaculate looks. Let’s delve deeper.


How common are Cedar Waxwings?

Although uncommon, they may occur in flocks of over 100 birds, though their abundance varies from year to year. When present they are often attracted to the fruiting camphor trees. The Cedar Waxwing is a common migrant and winter visitor in southern California.

Where can I find Cedar Waxwings?

Cedar waxwings primarily eat fruit and are often found near bushes or trees bearing small fruits, such as blueberry, dogwood, serviceberry, winterberry and juniper.

Are waxwings endangered?

Not extinct
Waxwings are evaluated as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. Populations are increasing in their range partly because fields are being allowed to grow into forests and shrublands, and fruiting trees like mountain ash are being planted as landscaping.

Why is the Cedar Waxwing important?

The Cedar Waxwing is one of the few North American birds that specializes in eating fruit. It can survive on fruit alone for several months. Brown-headed Cowbirds that are raised in Cedar Waxwing nests typically don’t survive, in part because the cowbird chicks can’t develop on such a high-fruit diet.