Birdwatch

Berry Christmas!

For the cedar waxwing, holiday indulgence means feasting on holly berries, and other native fruits

By Susan Campbell

The cold weather is here and just in time for the holidays, with red berries everywhere. The abundant moisture last spring has spurred our local trees and shrubs to produce a bumper crop of fruit. Hollies in particular are covered with plump, ripe morsels. Any time now large flocks of cedar waxwings will be appearing to take advantage of nature’s bounty. 

Waxwings are sleek, brown birds that sport a black mask, yellowish belly and distinctive tail with a splash of yellow on its tip. Although both males and females have a crest of tan feathers, it is rarely raised during the nonbreeding season. These birds get their name from the bright red, waxy spots on their wing feathers. The waxwing’s high-pitched whistle is also singular. The Bohemian waxwing, a close relative, is a larger, grayer bird much farther to the north and west in North America. So far, no individual of this species has been documented in our state.

During the warmer months, cedar waxwings can be found in northerly latitudes during breeding season throughout a variety of moist habitats. A pair will seek out a sizeable conifer and the female will build a nest of soft material in which to lay her eggs. Three to five young are normal and, not long after they fledge, the family will join with other waxwings even before fall migration begins. The species is very social most of the year and in winter it is not unusual for flocks to number in the hundreds.

Cedar waxwings are unusual in that they can subsist for months at a time on berries. Although they do feed on insects in the summertime, they have no trouble consuming only fruit when the weather gets cold. They swallow whatever small berries they can find: seeds and all. This can be problematic in late winter when the sweet morsels ferment to the point that they intoxicate birds. Bingeing waxwings are at risk of being picked off by predators or being injured if they hit a window.

These handsome birds surprise people when they show up at birdbaths. If you are fortunate enough to experience cedar waxwings descending en masse, it is quite a spectacle.  Of course, they can drain a water source in no time if they have been feeding heavily nearby. Also, it is important to be aware that when waxwings come close to buildings to eat or drink, they may make a fatal error by flying into the reflection of the sky on windows. To prevent this, break up window reflection with sun catchers, stickers, hanging plants and the like. The best approach is to hang things on the outside of the window — but this is not always practical.

If you want to attract cedar waxwings to your yard, add more native fruiting trees and shrubs for them and an abundant source of water. You could consider any one of a variety of hollies, or try adding cedar, juniper, serviceberry or wax myrtle. Do not forget that, like all of our wintering birds, waxwings need thick cover while they are here. Many of the berry-producing species are valuable for cover as well while Southern magnolia (many in the bay family in fact), Leyland cypress or even red tips may prove beneficial.

Important note: To those who have nandina bushes in your yards: Remove the berries immediately — or better yet, replace the plants entirely. Nandina is now recognized as being highly toxic (containing significant amounts of cyanide) and is responsible for killing dozens of waxwings at a time in recent years here in the southeastern United States.  PS

Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos at susan@ncaves.com.

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