Friday, June 6, 2014

Cedar Waxwing

I’ve been on the lookout for a Cedar Waxwing with red waxy tips to its secondary feathers, and this May I caught one. The bird in the photo looks a bit strange because I have photoshopped my hand away. Both sexes of waxwings have these red tips, which may serve as a status signal in mate selection. Older birds have more red tips than younger ones. Birds tend to pick mates with a similar number of waxy wing tips. The red tips were once thought to protect the feathers from wear as waxwings frolic in cedars, but this hypothesis is no longer supported by most ornithologists.
After taking a photo of the spread wing, I held the bird further away to include an image of the waxwing’s yellow tail band. To my surprise, when I developed the picture, I noticed some of the tail feathers also have red tips. I can find no mention of this plumage trait in Witmer et al. 1997, although a photo in their account shows a tail with much less distinct red tail feather tips. 

Waxwings with orange-banded tails were first observed in North America in the early 1960s and are becoming increasingly common. (See my first-ever post in this blog.) Apparently this orange color is due to the waxwings’ eating Morrow’s Honeysuckle, an introduced plant that has now become fairly common. The honeysuckle contains rhodoxantin pigments, which, if eaten at critical times of feather growth, change the color of the tail band. 
P.S. Roger Everhart directed me to this link:


  1. Dan,
    Do the tips actually feel waxy in hand? Always wondered that! Thanks...

  2. You know what? I THINK so, but I did not give them a feel. Next time I will and will let you know!