Cedar Waxwing: Masked Frugivore

On my walks in Detroit’s Eliza Howell Park each year at this time, I look for Cedar Waxwings. Lately I have been seeing this splendid species nearly every day.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber.

Fruit constitutes an amazingly large part of the Cedar Waxwing diet, 84% according to the species description in the Michigan Breeding Bird Atlas. Many other bird species eat fruit when berries are plentiful in the fall, but I know of no other local bird with such a year-round focus.

In November they can often be found in Amur Honeysuckle.

As dedicated fruit eaters, Cedar Waxwings are nomads, going in flocks wherever ripe fruit is available. In Eliza Howell, I expect to see them fruiting in August as well as in November.

The August fruit that attracts them the most is wild Black Cherry.

I often stop to watch them as they acrobatically pursue the small cherries.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber.

Cedar Waxwings are rare here from late November until late May, when they arrive to nest, a little later than most of the other breeding species.

They spend the winter months eating fruit almost exclusively. There have been reports of them becoming intoxicated after eating rotting fruit that has fermented.

In spring they are sometimes seen in blossoming shrubs and trees, eating flower parts (eating fruit even before it becomes fruit?).

Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber.

In the summer they eat some insects, which constitute only about 12% of their annual diet. (The other 4% = flowers.). I first became aware of Cedar Waxwings when I was young and watched a number of them catching insects on the fly over a river. I learned later about their dedication to fruit eating.

They feed their nestlings insects for a short period of time, then mostly fruit. According to reported observations, cowbird hatchlings in waxwing nests don’t usually survive because of such a high-fruit diet.

Their nests, in dense areas of trees, are not easy to locate and to watch.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber.

Cedar Waxwings eat a great variety of small fruit, including these that are found in Eliza Howell (from top left clockwise): Virginia Creeper, Mountain Ash, Pokeweed, Poison Ivy.

None of these four is considered safe for human consumption, but Cedar Waxwings thrive on them. They also eat raspberries and mulberries, which this human consumes (picking non-acrobatically).

Waxwings are not attracted to backyard feeders, either seeds or suet, but those who grow fruit-bearing plants, like Dogwood and Winterberry, might have a small flock show up one day and quickly strip the fruit from a bush or a tree.

I suspect that I am not the only one who counts this masked bird a favorite.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber.

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