With their tufted crest, buff plumage, bandit-style facemask markings and bright red waxy wing feathers, cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are a distinctive sight, with large flocks descending on berry trees across the central U.S. as soon as temperatures drop.
Our guide to cedar waxwing migration explains where the species can be seen at different times of the year.
Cedar waxwings breed in northern latitudes, across southern Canada and the north-central U.S. In winter months, the northernmost populations migrate to warmer regions of the United States, and even further south into Mexico.
Across the central United States, some waxwing populations remain in their resident territories all year round if they have sufficient access to enough fresh berries in winter.
Others may migrate in some years but not in others, or ‘irruption’ years may occur where large numbers of migrating birds suddenly show up in a spot in which they’ve never been seen before, before departing a short time later.
To learn more about the migration patterns of this unique bird species, keep reading, as we’ll be exploring when cedar waxwings migrate, where they travel to, and whether they revisit the same wintering grounds year after year.
During the winter months, northern Cedar Waxwing populations migrate into warmer parts of the US
Cedar waxwings are classified as migratory birds, although certain populations that breed in the north-central regions of the United States are year-round residents in their territories and do not fly south in winter months.
Waxwings that breed in the southern regions of Canada will typically not spend winters where they raised their young, leaving in around September in search of areas with fruit trees from which to forage throughout the winter.
Flocks of cedar waxwings begin to gather in late August, once the breeding season has ended.
Migration occurs from September onwards, with large groups of cedar waxwings flying south to overwinter in warmer regions, returning to their breeding grounds in the northern United States and across Canada from April onwards.
Certain Cedar Waxwing populations are year-round residents - this is more common in north-central US states
Breeding territories of cedar waxwings are located across the north of North America, across Canada and the northernmost U.S. states.
These locations offer an ideal environment in which to raise young and forage for food in summer months, when their diets are primarily based on insects and invertebrates.
During winter, cedar waxwings’ diet changes to consist mainly of fleshy fruit and their winter migrations are largely determined by the availability of berries. Colder weather limits their regular supply of insects and grubs, prompting waxwings in their thousands to head south until spring arrives.
Overall migrations may reach a total distance of 1,400 to 2000 km (870 to 1250 mi), but journeys are broken and staggered with regular breaks, and may not reach their most southerly point until as late as February.
It’s believed that waxwings do not have set migration routes or any kind of loyalty to wintering grounds. Instead, the species is occasionally recorded as part of an ‘irruption’ event, where a sudden or dramatic arrival of a large flock of migratory birds is recorded in an area where the species is not commonly seen.
Typical migration journeys are a work in progress for the duration of winter, with waxwings quickly moving on from one area to the next once they have fed from any ripe berry trees they encounter.
Cedar Waxwings can travel impressive distances of up to 2000km (1250 miles) during migration
Waxwings living across Canada migrate to southern areas of North America, with many eastern birds spending winter months in the southeastern U.S. Some birds may travel as far south as Mexico, and deeper into Central America, with flocks reaching as far as Costa Rica and Panama.
A considerable number of cedar waxwings from the northern extents of the species’ range may settle in Florida and along the Gulf Coast.
Northern waxwings are recorded as leaving their summer breeding grounds in either late August or September. Waxwings have a maximum flight speed of 40 km/h (25 mph), and cover vast distances of over a thousand miles.
Migration is unhurried, with waxwings taking time to break their journeys if a suitable berry-laden tree catches their eye. Some may not reach their final destinations, in Florida or deeper into Central America until February, meaning that it can take up to six months in total.
Cedar Waxwings perched in Juniper Bush
Cedar waxwings begin to gather in flocks from August onwards, ahead of their migration journeys to wintering grounds. Flocks typically average between 30 and 100 birds, but flocks of up to 1000 birds have been observed to gather together.
Not all cedar waxwings are migratory, with those from the populations in the southern regions of the species’ distribution range typically remaining in the same areas in which they breed all year round. It’s also not set in stone. Some years there may be a significant influx of migrating waxwings, while in other years not a single one arrives.
Cedar Waxwing amongst the fall colors of maple leaves
Southern Canada attracts nesting waxwings each spring, with breeding activity recorded in British Columbia, Yukon. Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec.
These temporary visitors prepare to leave Canada from August onwards, returning between April and June. Across the northern United States, some migration may occur to states at a more southerly latitude.
Once waxwings have successfully finished raising their young, they begin to gather into large, loose flocks ahead of their winter migration. Heading generally southwards, the first migrations tend to begin in early fall, from September onwards.
Waxwing migration is a staggered affair, with birds stopping multiple times en-route to their final destination, to stock up on fresh fruit and berries wherever they find them.
A group of Cedar Waxwings coming in to land
In summer months, waxwings are on their breeding territories raising their young. They arrive in late April onwards, and the earliest eggs are typically laid in May to June. Peak breeding season coincides with the time of year when there is plenty of insect life in the forest they inhabit.
A cedar waxwing’s migration takes a more leisurely schedule than simply flying from A to B as soon as winter begins. Waxwings will break their journey regularly, to take advantage of any berry trees as they are passing through a region, and moving on as soon as they have exhausted the supply, sometimes even a matter of hours after arriving.
Close up of a perched Cedar Waxwing on a rock
Although cedar waxwings normally migrate during daylight hours, it is believed that some nocturnal migration of waxwings does occur too.
Waxwings can often be spotted during the day at stopover points along migration routes, stripping fruit trees bare from their crop of berries before moving onto their next rest stop.
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