By Amanda Fox
When thinking of the seasons, particular bird comes to mind. Robins in early spring, Hummingbirds in the summer, and one of our most unique looking birds in the autumn, Cedar Waxwings. The first five years of my life were spent enjoying the wildlife in rural Meredosia, Illinois. At the time, I didn’t realize just how lucky I was to see the many types of birds I observed daily. I have no doubt that this is where my interest in ornithology began, and it was here that I had my first encounter with Cedar Waxwings.
The next time I chanced upon this unique species was in the evening while riding my bicycle. I couldn’t tell you now exactly what road I was on, but from the corner of my eye I saw a flash of color. It caught my attention enough that I decided to stop. Sometimes locating birds can be difficult, but the high-pitched whistling noises that came from a shrub just off the road gave their position away. I counted about 10 birds and because of their unique characteristics, it didn’t take long to identify them.
First were their crests and black masks around their eyes. Then I noticed their stomachs that were a light brown that faded into yellow. The wings were a mix of grays and blues, but most distinctive were the red wax-like droplets on the tips of their secondary flight feathers. Along with their yellow tails, I knew exactly what I was watching.
Often traveling in large groups, they will move from place to place to find berries and fruit to eat. If you ever have the pleasure of seeing a flock on a berry or fruit filled plant, they will pick it clean in just a few minutes. Insects are also an important part of their diet.
If you are interested in attracting this beautiful species, there are a few things you can do to increase your odds. Since Waxwings consume berries and fruit year-round, consider adding dogwood, serviceberry, cedar, juniper, hawthorn and winterberry to your landscape. Interestingly, their common name comes from their preference for the small cones of the eastern red cedar. They are also attracted to the sound of running water.
When planting anything in your landscape, it is extremely important that you only purchase native species. Cedar Waxwings are one of many animal species that suffers from our lack of knowledge. A sad example of this comes from southern states where a plant known as Heavenly bamboo (Nindina) has been used in landscaping projects. Native to eastern Asia, these shrubs flower and produce berries that attract the Cedar Waxwings. But the toxicity of the plant proves to be fatal. Since Waxwings travel in large flocks, you can imagine just how devastating this is. To learn more about native plant species, check out the Native Resources Conservation Services through the U.S. Department of Agriculture or contact your local University of Illinois Extension program.