The American Birding Association has designated the cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) as the 2020 bird of the year. These sleek yet flashy feathered creatures are often seen perched and flying over the St. Croix River in summer.
The ABA is a 51-year-old organization supporting birdwatching across the country. It picked the cedar waxwing to start what it says is the group’s “next 50 years” because of its similarities to people who enjoy observing birds.
“Famously gregarious, Cedar Waxwings are all about community,” the ABA says. “They share berries, they congregate at fruiting trees, they even occasionally over-imbibe. Birders, too, are frequently a social bunch.”
The designation includes a commemorative poster featuring art by Chicago-based artist Tony Fitzpatrick.
Cedar waxwings primarily feed on insects in summer, explaining their tendency for sallying out above the river from tree branches on buggy days. Some will stick around all winter, switching to a diet of primarily berries.
They are known for flocking to berry bushes, even passing berries along a branch full of perched birds so everyone gets something to eat. Sometimes the berries are fermented and contain alcohol, and inebriated waxwings can be seen sobering up on the ground.
“Many aspects of the natural history of the Cedar Waxwing reflect its dietary specialization on sugary fruits, unpredictable in space and time: e.g., its flocking and nomadic movements, and lower levels of return to former breeding sites than other passerines,” reports Cornell University’s Birds of North America database. “In addition, Cedar Waxwings breed late in the year, coincident with the availability of summer-ripening fruits. The sociality of individuals within winter flocks and the lack of territoriality during the breeding season also are associated with the reliance of this species on locally superabundant fruit crops.”
Cedar waxwing gets their name from the bright red tips on the wings and the yellow tip of its tail. It also features a black mask over its eyes and a sporty crest. Its latin name, Bombycilla cedrorum, translates to “silk tail,” referring to the soft plumage.
The cedar waxwing’s call is distinctive, too. It is a thin, high-pitched trill that sounds like nothing else.
When preparing to breed, males and females “court” each other with elaborate rituals. The male does a “hopping dance” and if the female is interested, she hops back. They may also perch next to each other and pass food, flower petals, and other small objects back and forth. Pairs sometimes rub their beaks together, a little like kissing.
Cedar waxwing populations seem to be healthy, possibly even increasing as more berry habitat is created at the edges of former farm fields and forests. Lower use of harmful pesticides is also possibly helping.
Witmer, M. C., D. J. Mountjoy, and L. Elliott (2014). Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.309