The arrival of a colorful flock of berry-devouring waxwings is a sight to brighten any winter’s day. With their unusual crest and wax-droplet wing markings, it is easy to identify a cedar waxwing, but how do you tell the difference between males and females?
Keep reading to learn the subtle plumage differences and more obvious behavior traits to look out for.
Male and female cedar waxwings are similar in size and appearance, although if you look closely, males have a darker patch of throat feathers than females. Female waxwings build nests and incubate eggs alone, while males bring food to their nesting mate.
Further differences in behavior exist, relating to courtship and involvement in raising young. By understanding what to look for, you’ll be able to pick out females from the males in a flock of cedar waxwings with no problem at all.
For more tips on how to successfully tell male and female waxwings apart, please read on!
Male (left) and female (right) Cedar Waxwings - note the lighter patch under the chin
Subtle differences allow us to distinguish between male and female cedar waxwings when observing pairs, but identifying lone birds is somewhat tricky. Both sexes have a dark chin patch of feathers, with the male’s being a slightly darker shade than the female’s patch.
Minor differences in overall size may also help to identify whether a cedar waxwing is male or female. The male has a slightly thicker tail than the female, and during the breeding season, females are marginally heavier than males.
Male (left) and female (right) Cedar Waxwing pair
Female waxwings are similar in size to starlings, but have a distinctive crest and colorful plumage that enables them to be easily identified. They are mostly a brownish-pink color all over, with darker gray wings and tail, which is tipped by a narrow yellow band.
Their secondary wing feathers feature red, waxy tips, which are visible both when folded and in flight.
Both male and female cedar waxwings have an unmistakable black facemask marking, edged with a narrow line of white. Females have a brownish patch of throat markings, which are darker black and more prominent in males.
A female waxwing’s belly feathers are paler buff, progressing to lemon-yellow underparts. They have reddish eyes and a black bill and legs.
Close up of a female Cedar Waxwing perched in a tree
During the breeding season, female cedar waxwings are reported to be marginally heavier than males, with females weighing an average 34.4g (1.2 oz) compared to 32.8g (1.16 oz) for males.
Males and females are similar in size, with a length of 15 to 18 cm (6 to 7 in) and a typical wingspan of 22 to 30 cm (8.7 to 11.8 in).
Observing courtship behavior is one useful way of distinguishing between male and female cedar waxwings. A fascinating mutual feeding ritual is initiated by the male.
This involves the male presenting a berry to a female, then both birds touching bills, hopping apart, passing the berry between each other, and repeating this exchange before the female ultimately eats the gift.
If you’re watching closely, you’ll be able to safely tell which bird is which.
Cedar Waxwing courtship feeding - male is passing the berry to the female
Cedar waxwings have two common calls, made by both males and females, a ‘bzeee’ trilling call, and a hiss-like whistle that rises in pitch.
Females can commonly be heard making the trilling, high-pitched “bzeee” courtship contact call when they are incubating, to beg their mate to bring food to the nest site.
Nest site selection and construction fall to the female waxwing. If a second nest is attempted, the male may take on a role of collecting additional materials, although the weaving talents of the female are unmatched by the male. Females may also steal nest materials from other birds’ nests while building their own.
Once the nest is completed and the eggs are laid, the female alone incubates, remaining on the nest site for much of the day, and initially continues to occasionally take short breaks to forage for her own food. As incubation progresses, the female will flutter her wings and call to her mate to beg for him to bring her berries to eat.
While the female remains on the nest, incubating the unhatched eggs, the male guards the nest site from a higher branch, and calls to the female to alert her of any nearby predators. Once the young hatch, brooding by the female continues day and night until day 9, and then at night only until day 12.
Once young have hatched, male cedar waxwings will catch insects to bring to the nest to feed the young and the female, and gradually the female joins in with the foraging to help feed the nestlings. After the first few days, fewer berries are brought to the nest, with the male taking a larger share of feeding duties.
Fledging occurs after between 14 and 18 days, and parental feeding of young by both male and female waxwings continues for a further 6 to 10 days.
Close up of a Cedar Waxwing female perched in a tree
The role of a female cedar waxwing in nest building, incubating, and brooding young is complemented by that of the male, who keeps watch and brings food. During incubation, females do continue to leave the nest briefly, for up to 9 minutes at a time, to quickly forage for themselves.
Once nestlings hatch, feeding them can be quite intense, with around than 3.8 visits per hour needed by day 10. If a cedar waxwing is raising a brood of chicks alone, then although it is technically possible with varied reports of a successful outcome, it is less than ideal.
Nests where a female mate dies, leaving a sole male in charge, are recorded as less likely to succeed, with male cedar waxwings noted to abandon eggs or young if anything happens to their mate.
Female Cedar Waxwing feeding on juniper berries
Female cedar waxwings are mostly a pinkish-buff shade of brown, with dark markings around their eyes and throat. Their wings are dark gray, with red ‘waxy’ droplets on their wingtips, and a bright yellow band at the tip of their tail. Their underparts are a pale shade of yellow.
Both male and female cedar waxwings have two common calls: a high-pitched “bzee” trill and a rising whistle-like call, about half a second long. A high-pitched contact call, by females, is frequently heard during the nesting period, used by the female to beg her mate for food.
Neither the male or female cedar waxwing can be classed as the most melodic of songbirds. Rather than singing, a sighing whistle is made by both sexes, as well as a high-pitched trill, that is used as a contact call.
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