Waxwing ID Workshop

The noble Bohemian Waxwing. Note the red "waxy" bead on the wing

The noble Bohemian Waxwing. Note the red "waxy" bead on the wing

Fruits were ripped from their stems as the ravenous flock worked to clean this tree. Sharp, hooked bills spear the red flesh as more waxwings pile into the tangle of branches. The composite flock of ~300 birds was predominately (95%) Bohemian Waxwings and the reminder were Cedar Waxwings. The game was to pick out the occasional Cedar from amongst all of those Bohemians. The casual identification workshop kept me entertained for the better part of an hour, just before inclement weather moved into the valley.

The first identifying characteristic of both waxwings is their unique waxy beads located on the tips of the secondaries of adults. The waxy substance is generally bright red. The red coloration is due to a carotenoid pigment (a pigment coming solely for the waxwings’ diet). The size of the beads increases over the course of the first few basic molts. So, waxwing is not such a creative name after all.

Identifying Characteristics

Bohemian Cedar
Size Slightly larger. Only useful in side by side comparison Smaller
Overall Coloration Grayish Brownish
Undertail Coverts Reddish-brown White
Wing Patch Visible white Not Present
Wing Spots Yellow Not Present
Voice Deeper and harsher than Cedar Thinner, higher pitched

Note the undertail coverts, white patch, yellow wing spots, and grayish color overall

Note the undertail coverts, white patch, yellow wing spots, and grayish color overall

Note the undertail coverts, no white patch, no yellow wing spots, and brownish color overall

Note the undertail coverts, no white patch, no yellow wing spots, and brownish color overall

Here in Montana and for majority of the United States, there is a prevailing seasonal pattern of occurrence for these two species. Bohemian Waxwings dominate the winter numbers with a smattering of Cedar Waxwings that have stayed behind as the majority of their species moved south. During the summer months, it is almost with 100% certainty that every waxwing is a Cedar. The Bohemians have gone, for the most part, into the boreal forests of the Canada and Alaska.

A rather stylish Bohemian Waxwing

A rather stylish Bohemian Waxwing

Brightly plumaged Cedar Waxwing

Brightly plumaged Cedar Waxwing

Bohemian Waxwing in a classic pose

Bohemian Waxwing in a classic pose

Bohemian Waxwing chowing down

Bohemian Waxwing chowing down

The Juvenile-plumaged Cedar Waxwing

As Cedar Waxwings breed and nest quite late in the summer as to take advantage of the flush of ripening fruit, their young undertake their molt into adult plumage late as well. In fact, they may be in juvenile plumage in January, as was the case with the bird below.

Written by Radd Icenoggle

I am a native Montanan, who has spent a lifetime as an outdoors and wildlife enthusiast. I earned a degree in biology with an emphasis on habitat relations. During my studies, I had the great fortune to research and compose a thesis that explored the effects of slope aspect on...
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3 Comments

Rick Wright

Nice summary, Radd. I would point out that far from being the “first” character for all three waxwings, the ‘wax’ is in fact absent in many birds, either broken off or not yet developed. And Cedar Waxwing does indeed have a white patch on the wing–it’s just in a different place, formed by the white edges of the tertials. I’ve seen many beginning birders misidentify Cedars as Bohemians the first time they notice that.
See you soon?? come east!
r

Reply
Radd Icenoggle

Rick,

You’re absolutely right about the wax being absent occasionally (maybe more often than that). I should maybe state that it is a “prominent” white wing patch? Would love to go birding out East again, especially after seeing your Harlequin images…well done, sir.

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rebecca

Great post. I recently saw my first Bohemian Waxwings, and even though I didn’t get a great look (I noticed them in an ornamental tree by the road as I was driving, and wasn’t somewhere where I could pull over easily) I’m sure that’s what they were because I could clearly see the wing patches and simply because it’s winter. Cedar Waxwings should not be in northern Wisconsin (where I live) at this time of year.

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