Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are the smallest of three species in the Bombycillidae family and the most widespread of two Waxwing species in the United States. These bluebird-sized beauties have yellowish underparts, grayish upperparts, a black eyemask, and a prominent crest. They get their name from the waxy red tips of their secondary feathers.
Cedar Waxwings have a habit of turning up and disappearing before you know it, but where exactly do they live, and what drives their movements?
Cedar Waxwings can turn up just about anywhere in the Lower 48 states in winter, although they are present all year round across the country’s northern half. They also nest further north in Canada, where most are breeding visitors, and overwinter south of the border as far as Central America.
Cedar Waxwing migrations are irregular, depending on local weather and food availability, so you might not see them in the same areas from year to year. Nevertheless, they have become more common in the last few decades, expanding their breeding range in the southeast, northeast, and northwest.
Birdwatchers should look out for these sociable birds wherever fruiting plants like Junipers and Cedars are in season. They frequent a variety of habitats, from suburban parks to forests and along watercourses in arid environments. However, these birds are absent from the southeast and southwest during the summer breeding season when they nest in Canada and the northern half of the US.
This article dives deep into the distribution and habitats of the Cedar Waxwing, a nomadic species with an elegant look. Read along to learn when and where you might see these fruit-eating songbirds.
Cedar Waxwings can turn up just about anywhere in the Lower 48 states in winter, although they are present all year round across the country’s northern half
Cedar Waxwings occur only in the New World. They have a wide geographic distribution from coast to coast in central Canada in the north, through the contiguous United States, and south through Mexico to Costa Rica and Panama.
Cedar Waxwings occasionally migrate further south into Colombia, but they also turn up a lot farther from home. Birdwatchers have seen these birds in Iceland, Ireland, and even the Isles of Scilly off the Southwest coast of England.
Keep reading to learn more about their distribution in the United States and Canada.
Cedar Waxwings occur as breeding and overwintering nomads throughout the Lower 48 states. They also reach their northern breeding range limits in the far south of Alaska.
Cedar Waxwings breed from the Canadian border south to roughly the 40th Parallel North, which runs from northern California to New York. They nest slightly further south in the east than the west and furthest south in states like Nevada, Colorado, Arkansas, and Alabama.
During the non-breeding season, Cedar Waxwings can turn up in any of the Lower 48 states, driven by their search for seasonal food sources. They are most common in central Texas and the southeastern coastal plain and least common in the American Southwest.
Close up of a Cedar Waxwing eating berries from a branch
Cedar Waxwings occur widely across the southern half of Canada. They are breeding visitors to most of the country, although they are residents throughout the year near the United States border.
Cedar Waxwings occur in the following Canadian provinces:
Continue reading to learn about the Cedar Waxwings' preferred habitats.
Cedar Waxwings occur widely across the southern half of Canad
The availability of fruiting plants determines the Cedar Waxwings’ distribution. These nomadic birds are most common in woodlands, although their ability to find isolated food sources is remarkable. They will visit backyards and urban areas where ornamental fruiting plants are common.
Their breeding habitat includes woodlands and wooded areas along rivers and streams, although they avoid dense forests. They will also breed in orchards, old farmland, and young plantations.
Cedar Waxwings avoid desert, prairie, and other open areas while migrating, although they will follow watercourses that offer a suitable environment for fruiting plants. They will also visit towns and cities where parks and backyards provide a reliable food source.
During the non-breeding season, these birds turn up wherever fruiting plants are abundant. These areas include a wide variety of different habitats, from forests to sage scrub. Cedar Waxwings frequent habitats where the following fruiting plants occur:
A pair of Cedar Waxwings feeding on berries in their natural habitat
Cedar Waxwings are most common in the Southeast of the USA during winter but can be unpredictable elsewhere. These birds can be seen more reliably in suitable habitats in the northern United States, where they live throughout the year.
Cedar Waxwings are listed as ‘Least Concern’ by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and are increasing in number.
They appear to be benefitting from the use of fruiting plants in urban landscaping and the conversion of old farmlands to forests. They also enjoy the protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Cedar Waxwings occur in good numbers, but tracking them down can be tricky. Read on for some good spotting tips.
Cedar Waxwings having a drink of water from the edge of a river, Connetquot River, Islip, New York
It is difficult to predict where and when Cedar Waxwings will turn up. The best place to see them is where fruiting trees are abundant but isolated. Good food resources attract the birds and concentrates their numbers.
Fruit and berry yields may fluctuate yearly depending on the weather, but old fields, open woodlands, and riparian areas tend to support these plants. Keep a lookout for large flocks of birds producing high-pitched whistling calls.
However, Cedar waxwings can quickly devour the berries in a local area, so don’t expect them to stick around for too long.
Cedar Waxwings are diurnal birds. They come out in the morning and feed actively during the day. These birds usually gather to roost in trees in the evenings, although there is some evidence that they migrate at night.
Close up of a Cedar Waxwing perched on a Willow Tree
Cedar Waxwings are partially migratory, with some birds traveling long distances to their overwintering grounds and others moving nomadically in search of food. These birds remain within the vicinity of their nests during the breeding season but disperse widely in the non-breeding season.
Cedar Waxwings show low breeding site fidelity, often breeding in a different area each year.
One study in the Midwest found that less than 5% of the banded birds return to nest in the previous location, and another in Canada found no returning birds. They show the same lack of fidelity to their overwintering grounds, with some individuals visiting vastly different areas each year.
Cedar waxwing eating a serviceberry from serviceberry bush, Marion County, Illinois
Cedar Waxwings occur from Central America to southern Canada in the winter. Many Waxwings migrate south to avoid the harsh northern winter, and these birds are most common in States like Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
Summer is the breeding season for these masked and crested songbirds. Cedar Waxwings nest in wooded areas from roughly the mid-latitude of the USA (Northern California to Virginia) to Central Canada and the southeast of Alaska.
Cedar Waxwings include insects in their diet during the summer and fall. They often feed along watercourses and near lakes where fruiting trees are abundant and aquatic insects hatch to provide an additional food source.
A flock of Cedar Waxwings alongside an American Robin
Cedar Waxwings are gregarious and non-territorial, even during the breeding season. They are usually seen in flocks throughout the year, although the largest aggregations form during migration and the winter non-breeding season.
Cedar Waxwings also move and forage in the company of other bird species. Sometimes they migrate in huge flocks with American Robins (Turdus migratorius) and feed in mixed groups with the similar Bohemian Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus).
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