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It’s in your nature: Cedar waxwings, the berry birds

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    Waxwings crave berries such as autumn olive, multiflora rose, mountain ash and green briar berries, seen here. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

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    The beautiful cedar waxwing also has a yellow-edged tail.

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    The cedar waxwing has the characteristic “Lone Ranger” mask and a crest. Here one perches near a crabapple still clinging to the now-bare branches.

Published January 05. 2019 07:03AM


One of the Times News region’s prettiest birds is the cedar waxwing. It can be found here year-round, but in winter, its abundance is either feast or famine. That unpredictability is due to their gathering in flocks (often 10 or more birds) and their wandering flights taking them in search of, well, berries. Their nomadic roaming is due to their craving of berries or drying fruit persistent on some trees.

Typically the flocks drop into a food source, feed voraciously, and almost as quickly as they arrived, they whir away on rapid wing beats. The flock’s flight is unique, too. As the dozens of birds fly, the flock seems to be choreographed to turn quickly and synchronized, which also helps with identifying them.

Waxwings make a characteristic twittering call, and when you’ve heard it once or twice, it helps you locate the next flock. Knowing that call will help you grab your binoculars to check out what you thought were some dull brownish birds dotting the neighboring shrubs or tree tops. The extra minute used to identify them will be worth the effort. These “Lone Ranger” masked birds are quite beautiful.

The cedar waxwings pair up in late winter (usually earlier than all other songbirds) and late in May they mate and lay eggs while both male and females feed and care for the young. They have one nest a year, and their diet at nesting time includes more insects. Other than the nestling time, their diet is 80 to 90 percent berries or desiccated fruit clinging to branches. The Beltzville State Park area, with its many well-planned food plots (Pennsylvania Game Commission), usually harbors a number of waxwing flocks. There they find autumn olive, multiflora rose hips and a particular favorite, the fruit of the numerous crabapple trees.

I have read excerpts, and more recently some video clips, of drunken waxwings. Their habit of gulping down a dozen or two berries is part of the problem. The frozen fruits from winter begin to thaw in spring time, and the slow warming allows yeast in the fruits to ferment. Obviously, a small bird like a waxwing with a number of fermented fruit in its crop and digestive tract can become inebriated easily.

I read an account where a judge needed to adjourn a court session because birds just outside the courtroom were continually flying into the windows. The trees outside the courthouse were full of overwintering fruits, and the birds were obviously very “drunk” and distracting the jurors. Other folks have found what they thought were injured birds, staggering/flopping/unable to fly, on their patios. They were too “drunk” to fly or even remain upright, and surely would then be easily hit by vehicles or offer up easy prey to opportunistic hawks. To their surprise, hours later, sobered up, they recovered and off they went.

If you have mountain ash or crabapple trees in your yard, take a closer look when a flock alights in them. Quickly grab the binoculars, because they feed and off they go. Enjoy the berry birds and all that nature has to offer. Hey, just get out there!

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: The ______ warbler can sometimes be found in this area in winter. A. black and white, B. yellow, C. yellow-rumped, D. hooded

Nature Trivia Answer from Dec. 22: The hawk most likely to prey on your feeder birds is the Cooper’s hawk.

Contact Barry Reed at



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