Fruit lovers

Listen for a high-pitched, faint, wheezy whistles and you might find you’re surrounded by a flock of Cedar Waxwings searching for berries in the trees above you.


Bright yellow fringe at the tips of the central tail feathers and brilliant red spots on the upper wing coverts give this bird its name.


Bright accents might be signals about the health of individual birds or its recent diet.  Juvenile birds that eat a lot of berries from an introduced species of honeysuckle in the northeastern U.S. often have orange tail tips, instead of yellow.

These birds are dedicated fruit lovers — any bite-sized fruits, any season.  But they also feast on aerial insects when they are abundant, sallying out from a tree perch to grab an insect, and returning to the same perch.


A whole tree full of juvenile Cedar Waxwings was fly-catching (probably mosquitoes) on a warm fall afternoon recently.  Juvenile birds still have faint brown stripes down their breast, and a smaller black mask.


Being extremely social birds, they follow one another from hot spot to hot spot as they make numerous dashes from their tree perch toward whatever flies by.

Cedar Waxwings can survive on a diet of just fruit for several months at a time, without protein supplement (fruits are notoriously low in amino acid content, as well as total calories).  How do they manage???

Most frugivores, like Cedar Waxwings and Robins, eat a large variety of fruits that are highly variable in their nutrient constituents in order to obtain what they need in their diet.  Some fruits are very high in sugar content; some are higher in lipids.  Waxwings are sugar specialists, while Robins are lipid specialists, and their particular preferences provide them with the most highly absorbable diet.


A little of this, a little of that, makes for a balanced diet.

In fact, Cedar Waxwings have an exceptionally good absorptive capacity for sugars, not only in their small intestine, but in the proximal part of their colon as well (an unusual place to transport sugar).  It is thought that the accelerated sugar transport capacity of their intestine actually enhances amino acid transport as well, because these birds can actually remain in positive nitrogen balance on fruit diets that other frugivores (like robins) cannot.

cedar-waxwing adult

“I’m so pretty….oh, so pretty…”

The best way to maximize both your caloric and essential nutrient intake is to process food quickly.  Most frugivores manage to separate fruit pulp from seeds very quickly in their intestine, and purge the gut of the indigestible seeds while retaining the pulp to extract every vital nutrient.  In fact, the seeds of an ingested meal of berries might appear just 20-30 min after Cedar Waxwings have eaten.   That’s why you shouldn’t stand under a tree where frugivores are feeding.


Watch out below…

7 thoughts on “Fruit lovers

  1. These are wonderful pictures! We see crowds of cedar waxwings every spring at serviceberry trees near our windows. These trees are natives that produce white flowers, quickly followed by reddish fruits, in spring. The cedar waxwings come by every day and seem to watch the berries finish ripening so they can swoop in. Great fun.

    • Thanks, Beth. Yes, I guess service berries are one of their favorites, along with mulberries, strawberries, raspberries, juniper berries, etc. I wish the deer didn’t eat the tops off my service berries so I had something to offer the fruit lovers in my backyard 😦

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