Cedar Waxwings are dining their way north: Don’t miss the show

by Anders Gyllenhaal
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Here’s a delicious fact about Cedar Waxwings: They can strip a tree of its berries in such a rush the juice turns to wine and they get too buzzed to fly.

Robert Rice, a veteran bird scientist who spent his career with the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center, explained what happens: “They can eat so much fruit, it ferments in their gut and they go wobbly for a while,” Rice said.

Few other birds feast in such a mass frenzy, and the phenomenon is on display this time of year as bands of waxwings dine their way north from the lower U.S. and Central America and as far up as Canada.

It’s a magnificent sight, one I assumed I’d miss this year with our limited mobility. But the other day, wandering through the trees not 50 feet from our home, I noticed what looked like a new arrival. It was the first of a flock of Cedar Waxwings that gradually became an avalanche, all collecting insects as if their lives depended on it.

They began high in the trees, then gradually worked their way down to the lower branches. Today insects were on the menu, and one bird after another took a turn working the branches, all the while ignoring our presence as only the migration enables. It’s a gift to birders, and photographers, enabling closeup views you rarely are granted.

Flying Lesson: The Cedar Waxwing is a study in nature’s design, with touches of yellow, red and brown slashed across a form that is almost always in motion. A good bit of that motion is spent on its frantic feeding. They go overboard on that front as well.

This is a post we published at about this time last year as the waxwings came sweeping through town. We’re rerunning some of our most popular pieces this year while working on our book on conservation across the hemisphere, to be published in the spring of 2023 by Simon and Schuster. Watch for details as this gets closer.

The Cedar Waxwing wears a striking plumage, dressed from beak to tail as if out on the town. Its tail sports a flash of bright yellow and wing tips appear tipped in apple red paint. Their coats have an iridescent sheen that seems to change color as the light shifts.

But it’s the head that gives the waxwing a modernist rebel look. Its eyes are masked in black, and a tuft of slick-backed feathers ends in a tufted flourish. Altogether, this bird looks ready for a New York City fashion runway.

Here’s a gallery of their antics — with a full gallery on Cedar Waxwings at the end of the post:


The feeding went on for about half an hour. More than 100 waxwings must have passed, four and five at a time, stopping  for just a few seconds of dining before moving on to another nearby tree. By the time that last few departed, I had the material for the video at the top and the gallery of photos below.

You may be wondering when the waxwings are coming through your own territory. Here’s an animated map from the Cornell Lab that shows their migration patterns through the year. You can also visit the Explore section of the Cornell website on waxwings to plug in your town or county and see if waxwings are nearby.

But don’t delay. They’ll be gone almost fast as they arrive — unless they gobble too many berries at once and have to take a break to nurse a hangover.

And here’s a collection of waxwing photos North Carolina, Florida, Maryland and Virginia:






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