For the Birds: Waxwings are always a welcomed sighting

Photo by Chris Bosak A cedar waxwing perches on a branch in New England, spring 2021.

I had hobbled almost all the way from the car to the entrance of work when I noticed a flock of cedar waxwings picking off leftover berries in a nearby tree.

Even with the persistent tendinitis in my feet acting up, I made my way back to the car to grab the camera. Usually, in situations like this the camera is sitting at home, but this time I was prepared for the unexpected. Cedar waxwings, in my experience anyway, are always unexpected. They are fairly nomadic, and it’s hard to go out looking specifically for them. But they appear now and then and it’s always a thrill to see them.

I retrieved the camera and hobbled back through the parking lot to the tree in question. Of course, the tree was empty when I got back as the waxwings had taken off for parts unknown.

Things like that have happened far more than I’d like to admit, so I just reported for duty and got to work. Thankfully, the window from my office has a view of that tree, and about 15 minutes later the waxwings were back in force. I slowly made my way back outside and, as is often the case with waxwings, they obliged by going about their business and not minding the click of the camera.

I got my fill of photos and then did a quick scan for any random Bohemian waxwings that may have been mixed in with the flock. Bohemian waxwings on rare occasions can be seen in New England with cedar waxwings. I have yet to see one, but I have read several reports of that happening. Bohemian waxwings are a larger cousin of the cedar waxwing.

Upon getting home that evening and checking the results of the photos, something jumped out at me regarding the waxwings I had photographed. None of them had the telltale and namesake red waxy wingtips. What kind of waxwing doesn’t have waxy wings, I asked myself, even though I suspected I knew the answer.

I was correct in assuming that these are young birds that haven’t developed this feature yet, most likely first-year birds. Upon further research, it is believed that the red waxy wingtips are a sign of maturity and social standing in waxwings. The more red the wingtips, the older and healthier the bird. None or only a few waxy wingtips means it’s a younger and more inexperienced bird. That is the current understanding of the purpose of this feature anyway.

What makes for waxy wingtips? you may ask. Also thanks to the Internet (a blog on to be specific), I discovered that: “The red wax tips are appendages on the bird’s secondary feathers. They’re colored by astaxanthin, a carotenoid pigment.” Now you know.

Cedar waxwings, of course, also have yellow-tipped tails as another distinguishing feature. These are not waxy, just yellow. A change in diet can alter that yellow to yellowish-orange or orange.

I love when I stumble across cedar waxwings. I think if I ever made a top 10 list of my favorite birds they would probably be on it. I would imagine they would fall on the top 10 list of many other birdwatchers as well.

This latest sighting was a welcome prelude to the upcoming warbler and spring migration season. Waxwings may be found in New England throughout the year and they are a welcomed sighting at any time. This sighting was particularly timely as it helped to bridge the gap between winter and the onset of spring migration.

Happy spring everyone, and let me know what you are seeing out there.

Photo by Chris Bosak A cedar waxwing looks for berries in a park in New England, January 2021.

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