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Waxwings - The Phainopepla

birds northern flocks cedar

Waxwings are medium-sized, fruit-eating, perching birds found in northern Eurasia and North America that Cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum). Photograph by Robert J. Huffman. Field Mark Publications. Reproduced by permission.
are included in the family Bombycillidae. Waxwings have a crest on the top of their head, and have soft, sleek, often shiny plumage. The secondary feathers often have a soft, wax-like appendage at the tip, from which the common name of these birds was derived.

Waxwings are largely fruit-eating birds, although they also eat insects, especially during the breeding season. These birds usually catch their insect prey by flycatching, which involves aerial sallies from an observation perch to catch insects on the wing.

The waxwing family includes eight species worldwide. Three species in this family are familiar to North Americans.

The cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) breeds in a wide range of habitats throughout the range of northern coniferous and broad leaf forests of Canada and the northern United States. The cedar waxwing winters in the southern United States and Central America.

The bohemian waxwing (B. garrulus) breeds in coniferous and mixedwood forests and muskegs of northwestern North America, as well as in northern Eurasia, where it is known simply as the waxwing. However, during the non-breeding season the bohemian waxwing aggregates into flocks, which forage widely for berries far to the south of the breeding range, and as far east as the Atlantic coast.


Phainopepla nitens is a red-eyed, glossy-black bird that occurs in the southwestern United States and central Mexico. The Phainopepla is found in semi-arid scrub, and is rather more insectivorous than the waxwings. The Phainopepla also travels in small flocks during the nonbreeding season.

The waxwings are rather irregular in both their breeding and wintering abundances. Waxwings sometimes occur in unusually large numbers outside of their usual range in some winters, probably as a result of poor berry crops in their normal wintering habitat. During such irruptive events of abundance, waxwings often occur in large flocks in cities, avidly feeding on berry-laden, urban trees and shrubs such as junipers and mountain-ash. These winter occurrences of flocks of bohemian and cedar waxwings are unpredictable pleasures that are relished by bird watchers.

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