Cedar waxwings are popular songbirds that can be confusing to birders because of their nomadic habits. Often found in large, active flocks, these passerines are found throughout North America but their range varies greatly based on seasons and available food supplies. Understanding how to identify cedar waxwings can help birders easily recognize these energetic birds, even when they aren't common visitors.
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Adult Cedar Waxwing Identification
Both male and female cedar waxwings look similar as adults, though female birds may have a shorter crest and be slightly smaller. To identify adult cedar waxwings, look for these clues:
- Mask: The black “bandit” mask is a cedar waxwing's key facial feature. The mask covers the dark eyes, forehead and lores in an elongated triangular shape and is ringed with a thin, uneven white border.
- Crest: These songbirds have a distinct crest that can be held erect or flattened against the head. The crest color does not vary from the tan color of the head.
- Bill: A cedar waxwing's bill is thick but relatively short, with a slightly curved culmen and a small hook at the tip to help the bird rip into the fruit that makes up the majority of its diet.
- Chin: The chin is black, but without a defined border. Instead, the edge of the chin color is blurred into the tan of the throat and breast. The amount of black on the chin and throat can vary.
- Upperparts: The upperparts, including the nape, back, wings and tail, are buff-tan to gray in color, with more tan closer to the head and more gray on the tail. There are no spots, mottling or streaks on adult birds.
- Red Feather Tips: The tips of the secondary feathers on adult cedar waxwings have a bright red waxy coating that stands out prominently on their gray wings. While it is unknown what the purpose of this coating is, studies have shown that female birds prefer mates that are mature enough to have this marking.
- Tail Tip: The tip of the tail has a wide, bright yellow band that is unmistakable. While this tip can wear thinner in birds with worn plumage, it is always visible. In some birds, the tip may have an orange hue, depending on the bird's diet.
- Undertail Coverts: The undertail coverts are white and contrast with the yellow lower abdomen. Compare this coloration to the bold rust color of the undertail coverts of the bohemian waxwing, a species that looks very similar to the cedar waxwing.
- Lower Abdomen: The lower abdomen and lower flanks are distinctly yellow, though the degree of yellow can vary and is usually slightly brighter on male birds.
- Legs and Feet: For both genders, the legs and feet of the cedar waxwing are dark gray or black.
Photo – Adult Cedar Waxwing © Bill Thompson / USFWSContinue to 2 of 3 below.
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Identifying Cedar Waxwings in Flight
It can be challenging to identify birds in flight, but the fact that cedar waxwings often move in large flocks can be helpful, since birders can usually get good looks at more than one bird. Watching for wing shape and key body markings is essential for identifying these flying songbirds.
- Mask: Even in flight, the bandit mask of the cedar waxwing stands out prominently. While it may not be possible to discern the outline of the mask on a fast-flying bird, the overall shape and black color will still be easily visible.
- Underparts: The pale tan fading to yellow underparts of the cedar waxwing are easily visible in flight, with the yellow color most focused around the bird's dark legs, which stand out clearly against the paler body.
- Wing Shape and Beats: These songbirds have relatively broad, rounded wings that do not show any obvious color patterns or markings when seen from below in flight. The wing beats are steady and interspersed with short glides when the wings are held against the body, giving the bird an undulating flight path.
- Undertail Coverts: In flight, the plain white undertail coverts are clearly obvious.
- Tail Shape and Tip: The cedar waxwing's bright yellow tail tip is just as obvious in flight as it is when the bird is perched. The tail may be held straight or fanned out, but the yellow terminal band is always visible.
Photo – Cedar Waxwing in Flight © Christopher DrakeContinue to 3 of 3 below.
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Juvenile Cedar Waxwing Identification
Immature cedar waxwings lack a lot of the clear coloration and markings of adult birds, but there are enough identifying characteristics for birders to feel confident in identifying these juvenile birds.
- Food: The diet of cedar waxwings is a good identification characteristic for both adult and juvenile birds. These birds are primarily frugivorous, and they eat a wide variety of fruits, including berries, crabapples and other fruits. Small fruits they will pick individually and swallow whole, and a flock may strip an entire tree before moving on.
- Mask: The black bandit mask is not fully formed on juvenile birds, but the angular shape is still clear. Because the mask is smaller, the white border may seem much more prominent on young birds.
- Crest: A juvenile cedar waxwing does not have the fully formed crest that adult birds will show, but the rear of the head may show ragged feathers instead. These will eventually develop into a full crest.
- Underparts: Young cedar waxwings have blurry tan or dusky streaking on their underparts that helps serve as camouflage to protect them. If the bird's feathers are ruffled, the streaks are even more blurred and may look just like tan or buff underparts.
- Lack of Red Tips: Young birds do not have the red waxy tips on their secondary feathers that mature birds show. Instead, the wings are plain gray-brown. The red tips start to appear when the birds are fully grown, and older birds typically have more red tips.
- Tail Tip: Even young cedar waxwings show the bright yellow terminal band on the tail. Because the younger birds are usually more plain and less colorful than adults, the yellow tail tip may stand out even more than on mature birds.
Identifying cedar waxwings at different ages and in different poses isn't difficult once you learn the key field marks for the species and how they compare to other songbirds. By understanding their identification characteristics, you won't have any trouble identifying active flocks of cedar waxwings.
Photo – Juvenile Cedar Waxwing © Nick Saunders