Home | Bird diet | Keeping North American Birds – Natural History and Care of the Cedar Waxwing

Keeping North American Birds – Natural History and Care of the Cedar Waxwing

Cedar WaxwingEven where it is common, the Cedar Waxwing, Bombycilla cedrorum, always elicits excitement among birders.  Widely considered to be one of the USA’s most beautiful birds, captives tame readily and have achieved some popularity among European hobbyists.  Those I’ve kept have provided many fond memories and interesting observations.


This 6-inch-long bird has a unique look that can be described as “sleek, silky and shiny”.  It is clad in muted shades of brown, gray and lemon-yellow, and sports a jaunty crest, bold black eye mask and striking scarlet-red wing tips.

The “cedar” part of the name is derived from a favored food, the berries of the Redcedar, while “waxwing” refers to the waxy secretions (which may function in mate attraction) that tip some wing feathers.

These unusual birds are one of only three members of the family Bombycillidae.  Included also is the Bohemian Waxwing, an equally attractive bird that sometimes joins Cedar flocks, and the gorgeous Japanese Waxwing.


Cedar Waxwings are found from southern Canada to the central USA.  Some populations do not migrate, while others travel to the southern USA or northern South America in winter.


Cedar WaxwingWaxwings favor coniferous and mixed forests, but will also utilize overgrown fields, scrubland, farms and suburban areas.  Desert populations, which are limited to habitats near water, are known.


This is one of North America’s few largely frugivorous (fruit-eating) birds.  Outside of the breeding season, serviceberries, cherries, blackberries, mulberries, elderberries, mistletoe, juniper berries, crabapple and similar fruits make up the majority of the diet.  Cedar Waxwings are skilled fliers, and sometimes pluck berries while hovering in place.

They are also agile enough to catch insects, including those supreme aerialists the dragonflies, on the wing.  Insects feature heavily in the diet when they are nesting.

Like most frugivores, Waxwings must eat great quantities of food in order to meet their needs…individuals gorging on overripe fruit have become “drunk” and in need of human care until they “came to”!

Cedar Waxwings in Captivity

I’ve cared for Cedar Waxwings in zoos and as a licensed wildlife rehabilitator; it is not otherwise legal to keep this species in the USA.

European breeders never fail to mention this bird’s trusting nature, a sentiment that I’ve found true as well.  Calm personalities render them wonderful pets (legalities of keeping birds bred in Europe must be investigated) …even individuals obtained as adults calm down and hand feed in short order.


Cedar Waxwings tend to become heavy and lethargic in captivity, and are therefore unsuitable for cage life.  A large aviary or bird room, where they are forced to actively fly about and forage for food, is essential.

Captive Diet

Cedar Waxwings courtingCedar Waxwings must be provided with a wide variety of berries, along with currants and apples, but must not be allowed to consume favorites to the exclusion of other foods.  Berries and fruits should always be rolled in a mix of high-quality insectivorous bird food (please write in if you have difficulty in locating this), Softbill Select and Egg Food.  Hard boiled egg and some cooked ground beef should be offered regularly.

Both adults and chicks need a diet packed with insects and other invertebrates during the breeding season.  Breeders should be provided with crickets, waxworms, mealworms, houseflies and other commercial species, along with wild-caught grasshoppers, katydids, spiders, sow bugs, beetles, termites, moths and non-hairy caterpillars.  I’ve always maintained insect traps, such as the Zoo Med Bug Napper, to help meet the needs of the birds under my care.

Please see my articles on Collecting Feeder Insects to learn more about increasing dietary variety.

Canned Invertebrates marketed for use with captive reptiles and amphibians, are a convenient means of increasing the nutritional content of Cedar Waxwing diets.


Single pairs do not often breed; more success has been had in colony situations.  Waxwings are very gregarious and, unless crowded, do well in groups.

Trees or bushes with dense foliage are preferred nesting sites.  Courting males hop and bow and offer small bits of food to the objects of their desire.  A variety of materials are used in nest construction – a process that may involve 2,500 collecting trips by the female!

Please see above for information on breeding season diets.



Further Reading

Cedar Waxwing Info and Recordings of their Song

Cedar Waxwing Videos

Cedar Waxwing image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Ingrid Taylar
Cedar Waxwings Courting image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Minette Layne


  1. avatar

    I need diet recommendations for my Cedar Waxwing. The softbill select is not sold at my OetSmart. Is there a good substitute? What can I give that is easily available to meet this birds nutritional requirements?

  2. avatar

    Hello Jeanette,

    Softbill Select is not usually carried in typical pet stores. You can order here.. Please note the other foods mentioned in the article…a bit a moistened dry catfood can also mixed into the softbill select/fruit. In the USA, Cedar Waxwings may only be legally kept by licensed rehabilitators. Please let me know if you need more info. Best, Frank

  3. avatar

    Thank you Frank! I know I’m not supposed to have it, however, I have an outdoor kitty and no rehabilitator close by. I have a gorgeous yard to release the bird in with plenty of berries year round, and I’m a veterinarian, so I say that’s going to have to be close enough! 🙂
    I’ve been feeding moistened dry cat food, but he is getting weak in his legs. Today I’m adding thawed blueberries and soaked dried cherries. Do you think he needs a calcium supplement?
    I will order the Softbill Select, and trap him some insects in the meantime.
    Again, thanks so much!

  4. avatar

    Hi Jeanette,

    I didn’t realize you were a vet…great! Did you get it as a chick in or just out of nest? Splayed legs are common in songbirds rec’d at this stage – if not tightly contained in an appropriately-sized artificial nest, the legs are pushed outward when the chick squats and develop abnormally.

    I’ve not seen CA problems in waxwings, but Calcium is often a concern with other frugivores…in the wild they take a wide variety of fruits, more species and different types than we can usually provide; insects as well. In addition to a CA supplement, CA-powdered crickets might be useful. earthworms are often high in CA as well, but not all waxwings will take them. Both can be easily gut-loaded as well (http://bitly.com/O62SqH, http://bitly.com/KAWrf2). But feeding solutions are long term – supplements etc. best to look into right away.

    If you need info re CA supplementation specifics, or correcting splayed legs, you might contact Kevin Wright, leading exotic animal vet, decades in zoo field; use my name in the topic (as “waxwing” – he’s drawn to the unusual!) as he’s starting up a new office and likely swamped.

    Good luck, please keep me posted, Best, Frank

  5. avatar

    You’re so wonderful…thank you! Today he took the blueberries and cherries. My mom hand picked some viburnum berries, and we caught a spider, a beetle, and a fly. as well as the cat kibble. The songbird food is ordered. I do not have a proper nest, so that is something to adapt as well as getting a calcium supplement. I gave him a worm when I initially thought he was a robin, so maybe he will take them again.

    He was perching and standing well before the leg weakness began, so I am anxious to get him back to that level of strength again, but don’t want to push him too far!

    Thanks again for all your help 🙂

  6. avatar

    Hi Jeanette,

    Thanks for the kind words, much appreciated. Splayed legs are obvious right away, as soon as bird leaves the nest, so I think you may need to look into Calcium. Vets at the Bx Zoo used Calcium Gluconate injections for reptiles/amphibs with severe deficiencies, but I’m not familiar with recommendations for birds. CA plus D3 supplements are available for use on herp food; supplelemnts formulated for birds are usually a mix of vitamins/minerals.

    Let me know if I can be of any help, and please keep me posted, Best, Frank

  7. avatar

    I will look for a supplement and let you know how it goes.

  8. avatar

    Thanks…hope all goes well, Frank

  9. avatar

    Well….I got the Ca and other things. He started to act a bit more feisty. He was still struggling, so I took him out for a light bath and inspection and noticed that he in fact broke his wing on his fall out of the tree. What disappointment! Is there any way to repair a baby wing? He was so small when I first found him that I thought he had punctured himself when it was actually the fracture I bet. What is considered the most humane euthanasia if that is the best route for him? His legs are still not operating 100% either, which seem like a separate issue. I tried. And thanks again for all your help.

  10. avatar

    Hi Jeanette,

    Wing bone repair depends upon the nature of the break and how healing has progresses; same principal as with mammals, can range from simple (I’ve done a decent job with a tongue depressor and tape!) to complex. A permanently damaged wing is usually not a problem if the bird is otherwise healthy and goes to a zoo or nature center – nearly all our raptors at the Bx Zoo have serious wing injuries, missing wings etc., they adjust.

    Leg problems are another matter; CA supplements may not be enough, may need CA gluconate injections (if that is standard for birds, I’m not up on that. We used carbon dioxide for euthanizing chicks etc. used for reptile food, very quick. Vets injected a lethal dose of a relaxing/sleeping med, but I’m not sure of details. I have several lists of vets certified by Ass. of Avian Veterinarians, etc., if you wish…

    Best, Frank

  11. avatar

    I would like to look into avian vets or rehabbers in the area and see if I can still help him then. Please do send what you can. Maybe there is still hope for him!

  12. avatar

    Yay! Found one…I should have looked sooner. She is going to take him tomorrow and see if anything can be done. I will keep you posted.
    Thanks, Jeanette

  13. avatar

    Good to hear! Please let me know how all goes, Best, Frank

  14. avatar

    The bird died in the night. I had gotten ahold of the rehabilitator, but she was happier to brow beat me than to give me her address or collaborate with me. I left her a message, but from her attitude I won’t be surprised if she doesn’t return my call.

    The food will be arriving soon, I suppose I will donate it as well as the Calcium to someone…the local pet store?

    Again, thanks for your help and support!

  15. avatar

    Hi Jeanette,

    Sorry to hear that…they are not easy birds to keep, even when acquired as healthy adults, you gave it a good try. I’ve run across the attitude you describe…a certain degree of experience or knowledge in one area often goes to the head, and some of the folks are passionate to the point of being unrealistic, unfortunately.

    You might look into a local nature center or bird interest group/club re the donation; I may be able to find local ones if you wish.

    Please check in when you can, and let me know if you need links to specific articles; I also write ThatReptileBlog ; may articles are on health/nutrition and such, based on my zoo/field work.

    Good luck in all, enjoy, Frank

  16. avatar

    Yes, if you can find a good place for the donation that would be wonderful! You’ve been an angel!

  17. avatar

    My pleasure…I’m involved with the Wild Bird Fund here in NYC, but let me know what stte you’re in if you want to find a nearby org so as to limit mail costs. Best, Frank

  18. avatar

    I’m in Michigan, near Port Huron

  19. avatar

    Winter there yet?…we’re complaining here because night temps “plummet” to 49F sometimes!

    Here you go: http://bitly.com/S3nvkC; it’s a small field, so if none close call any and ask for a referral.

    Hope all goes well, Best, Frank

  20. avatar

    Light frost in the morning once, but still in the 60s and low 70s by afternoon. Good gardening weather.

  21. avatar

    Hi Jeanette, No frost here yet, but various warblers passing through on way south; cicadas and katydids have ceased calling, and field crickets call mostly during the day, or early in night when temps are higher. Heaters in my tanks have clicked on, and turtles basking each morning.

    Best, Frank

  22. avatar

    You are very observant. I love it! I don’t get out enough to see our warblers, though I’m sure there are some. We have an excellent bird habitat. Woods, prairie, and water nearby. I want to learn all the bird calls so I can ID them on our nature walks. Fall is such a beautiful time! Enjoy

  23. avatar

    Thanks…I’m lucky – am interested in (and have worked with!) just about everything from ants to elephants. I’ve recorded “first seen” and other notes etc. since childhood, even in the heart of NYC, and still do. I need to get to more prairie habitats, though. Enjoy, best, Frank

  24. avatar

    I need recommendations on what to do with a beautiful cedar waxwing that I found in my mother’s garage with a broken wing yesterday. I have read the blog and advice re: food. However what can I do to ensure that the bird can heal so I can release it back at my mother’s yard. We are in Michigan- she has tons of pine trees and lives by a lake. However there are two cats that the neighbors let run loose. I called the Howell Nature preserve which rehabilitates animals yet they are full so… realistically could I do this my self or not likely? The bird is much more peaceful. It has eaten a little of a tomato, blueberries and butter – for the fat content. I have a cat myself so the bird is in my garage in a box with screen over top until I determine what we are doing with it. My son and I are willing to rehabilitate it yet do not know what to expect. Any suggestions?

  25. avatar

    Hi Kimberly,

    Nice of you to take the time to help out. The wing needs to be set properly if the bird is to regain the ability to fly; this needs to be done by an experienced rehabber or vet. Below are 2 sources of info with state-by-stae listings; the first seems to have many in Michigan…if none are convenient, call several that are fairly close and ask for a reference; they may know of individuals not listed, or cooperating vets. Your local vet may also have sources. Also check your state Fish and game or Conservation dept, which usually has resources as well.

    Good luck and Please keep me posted, best, Frank



  26. avatar

    Hi. I hope you can help. I am in urgent need of what to do for an injured cedar waxwing. I am at work and one hit our window. He is bleeding in his neck, not severely though. His wings and everything else are fine. Right now I have him in a box under my desk keeping him calm and quiet.

    Thank you,


  27. avatar

    Hi Viki,

    You’ll need to bring the bird to a vet, as internal injuries are likely. Call your local vet and ask for advice…many will treat wild birds gratis, or they may refer you to another office. Also check this list of wildlife rehabilitators ..see if someone in your area can pick up the bird. Your state fish and wildlife department will also have a list of volunteer rehabilitators. Good luck and pl keep me posted, Frank

  28. avatar

    Hi: Just looking up cedar waxwings online for fun of it and saw your site. It is illegal to keep a cedar waxwing so have kept this to myself. Ended up with one 13 years ago due to dog bite. Vet didn’t realize wing was broken until it was too late to set. Took three long months to heal opening to bone under wing from bite. Finally got it to heal with liquid bandage and tiny collar. Feed it cut up blueberries, black cherries, grapes in dish. Some orange, watermelon, plums in season. Catch moths, flies, and flying termites with bug zapper, and feed cooked tender part of chicken breast year-round. Loves its apple I always attach to side of cage. Can’t fly. Told by bird rehabilitation place 13 years ago that if I liked the bird, not to bring it to them as they would be required by law to euthanize it. So kept it. 13 years as of July 1, 2013.

  29. avatar

    Thank you! That is an amazing longevity…they are not often kept in zoos, but those I’m aware of have not approached that age. Especially impressive given that they are rather specialized feeders, and also due to the potential for serious infection, immune system collapse after the injury. I’ll keep your notes on file, pass along when I can. I’m sure the effort you put in, esp. re insects, is a factor..I’ve always used insect traps at the Bronx Zoo, for both birds and reptiles/amphibs. Wish I’d had you on staff when I was in the ornithology dept at the zoo! Enjoy and pl keep me posted, Frank

  30. avatar

    Adding to my post of Aug. 15, 2013, Cheepers, the Cedar Waxwing, has made it to age 14. Didn’t think she/he would make it through this winter, but is doing great right now. She’s enjoying the caterpillar moths right now along with other moths I catch by the back porch light in the evening. Don’t know that she’ll make it another year, so wanted to let you know how old she is.

  31. avatar

    Thanks you for remembering to write in…wonderful to hear! I mentioned your bird to a contact in Europe, where this species is more often kept than here in the USA, and she did not know of any that have lived to that age. Keep up the good work, enjoy, Frank

  32. avatar

    Hi again. It is interesting that she made it, considering the damage in the beginning. You could see the bone, two bones actually, underneath the wing. It was quite horrific. After one month, I paid the $100 to have the wing x-rayed; and, of course, it was broken. And now, not only broken, but it had healed incorrectly. So there was no question she could never be released and a Bird Rehabilitation place said they would just have to euthanize her if I brought her to them. So two months into the open wound, the vet said she could just take the wing off, that Cheepers wouldn’t miss it. So I stopped taking her to the vet. That’s when I made the tiny collar. I cut out a tiny circle of my young daughter’s somewhat heavy craft paper and I glued soft material on with Elmer’s glue and made Cheepers a little collar, wide enough that she couldn’t touch the open wound. The liquid bandage then did the trick. One month later, a total of three months from the time the dog bit her, the wound was completely healed. She received an antibiotic shot from the vet in the beginning and I believe I had liquid antibiotics to give her. Can’t remember that for sure. Long time ago.

  33. avatar

    Quite a story…very impressive! There’s an old saying among zookeepers that “birds are healthy or they are dead”!…referring to how hard it is to treat them, even in zoos. All the more so with a wild bird! Best, Frank

  34. avatar

    We found 5 baby cedar waxwings under a tree that the nest had blown out of. The babies were very alert and uninjured. We have been caring for them for close to 24 hours, careful to leave them devoid of human smell and touch. The things we fed them are worms and wild raspberries because we were not sure what there food source would be or what kind of birds they were until today. They happily accepted both types of food. The nest near the base of the tree was still intact and we were able to use gloves and carefully put them back in it. Next we used an eye dropped with water and they drank. We left to go swim for a bit and as we walked back the mother was fussing over them, unfortunately she spotted us and fled. As night approached we were worried about raccoons and neighborhood cats so we put them up in a tree in a very secure area. So far we haven’t touched them yet today but have looked at them. Should we leave them alone for the mother to come take care of them or continue to care for them? Thanks.

  35. avatar


    Sounds like you’ve done a great job. Yes, best to leave them as is, parents rearing offers best chance of survival…very hard to hand-raise an entire clutch, and then they may have some trouble at release time.

    Very few birds other than certain vultures have a well-developed sense of smell; handling will not cause rejection (disturbance, continued visits etc can, however). But wise to use gloves to prevent transmission of lice, bacteria to your hands.

    Nice work, congrats, Best, Frank

  36. avatar

    Hi: Cheeper’s, the old Cedar Waxwing, Mom again. Have a question for you. I’m now familiar with parasites, such as the louse fly; also see fly parasites, such as the red mite. But there is one fly parasite that I can’t find anything about on the internet. The body is about the size of a red mite, only a dark brownish color. Then it has arms coming off the front, one on each side of its body. They are a dark reddish color, with pincers at the end, kind of like the arms of a scorpion, only thin and long. When extended, they’re longer than the body. They move them about when they’re walking around and these arms are jointed in the middle, so that they can retract them somewhat when startled. Unlike the red mite, they squish easily inside the ziplock bags I drop the flies into. I use a bug zapper to catch the flies and so I think that’s why all the flies’ parasites drop off, too. What kind of bug is it? I got two today out of about 15 flies. Usually I squish them, but wanted to keep them so that I could look at them when I e-mailed you. After feeding Cheepers all the flies, I couldn’t find them. Yuck.

  37. avatar


    You are likely seeing pseudo-scorpions..tiny arachnids that are not parasites themselves, but which prey upon mites and other small invertebrates. please check out this info and let me know if I’ve guessed correctly when you have a chance, best, Frank

  38. avatar

    Hi: You are right. Now I feel terrible, having squished them. I won’t do that anymore, knowing they eat the nasty red mites. But looking at a different site with pictures, none of them pictured are as teensy tiny as the ones living on the flies here. You have to look very closely at the plastic bag to see them. Since their bodies aren’t red, they don’t stand out like the red mites do; and the only way you can spot them is to see the shape with those long front legs and pincers. Cheepers prefers a particular tiny fly that I don’t try to catch unless there is nothing else around because they are loaded with red mites. These flies are only about 3/16th’s inch long and can be covered in mites. Then we get those pseudo-scorpions coming off them, too. So you can imagine how teensy the pseudo-scorpions are. I’ve always worried that both insects would get on Cheepers. Is that something I should have ever been concerned about? We had about four louse flies get on her over the years, but at least we could see them as they would sit on top of her head like a cap and then dive into her feathers when my daughter would make a grab for them. My daughter always caught them, but it was difficult as they would “swim” under the surface of her feathers.

  39. avatar

    Thanks for letting me know..there are thousands of species, some barely visible. Always good to eliminate any inverts on the bird, pseudo-scorpions included. they’ll never control a mite outbreak, and could be irritating if they get into the cloaca, around eyes etc, or they might spread out through the home. Enjoy, Frank

  40. avatar

    I catch the flies with a bug zapper off the horses’ paddock fences. So the mites and pseudo-scorpions fall from them into my hand or into the ziploc bags where I dump the flies. That’s why I thought they were all parasites. The flies sometimes abort their larvae, too, before they’re ready. But if the larvae are fully developed, Cheepers loves them, too. Anyway, I don’t think any of them are a problem for the house. People get flies into their houses all the time and I bet they never notice these teensy tiny pseudo-scorpions. 🙂

  41. avatar


    You could likely get lots of useful insects by swinging a butterfly net through tall grass as well, but would need to remove stinging/biting species. This insect trap is based on models we use at the zoo to catch moths, beetles etc for reptiles and birds.

    Best, frank

  42. avatar

    So I found this Cedar Waxwing in a parking lot today that didnt fly away when I was walking in its direction. I walked closer & tried to get it to fly away but it was having obvious problems. I called animal services & they came & rescued him.
    they told me he has some problem with something in his chest area being broken but should recover in 4-6 weeks.
    They may have to hold him til after winter bcz theyre already starting to migrate for thewinter.

    Do you know if I’m able to adopt it & keep it as a pet, or if thatd even be a good thing for this type of bird?

    He was really friendly to me & just waited next to me while we waited for animal services. Seemed like we had a good chemistry LOL

    Thanks please reply or email me if you about this.

  43. avatar

    Nice of you to do that! All native birds are protected on a federal level and cannot be kept, but if you obtain a wildlife rehabilitators license from your state, you may be able to keep non-releasable birds. Adults tend not to adjust well except in large aviaries (injured ones “shut down”..sort of a shock reaction, and so appear calm) so if it recovers release would be ideal if possible. let me know if you need more info on the license; here’s some background: http://blogs.thatpetplace.com/thatbirdblog/2008/07/11/rehabilitating-native-birds-expanding-your-bird-keeping-experience/#.VFQ best, Frank

  44. avatar

    Yea I was kinda guessing that from what I read above in this post.

    Was just wondering if there was some exception if you saved one from almost certain death. Little guy wouldve wandered into the street or frozen or starved to death if I didnt intervene lol

    But i’m going to check with the animal shelter in a few weeks & see how he’s doing. Hopefully he can make a full recover & live a full life….


  45. avatar


    Unfortunately, no…bird would go to a licensed person of facility; states may vary in how strict they are, but law is federal, so….

    Please let me know how all goes, best, Frank

  46. avatar

    Thanks again, I will let you now how the little guy turns out.
    if you have somewhere I can send you a video, I took a couple mins video while I was waiting for animal services. He was just hanging out next to me, trying to eat a couple berries that were on the groud lol. U can email me a direct email if you have one or if your on Facebook, i can share the vids with you.
    thabks again

  47. avatar

    Hi: Just thought I’d let you know that Cheepers is still alive. She won’t be 15 until July 1st, but she is soooo fragile. Like a very old person.

  48. avatar

    Very impressive! Thanks and keep up the good work (both of you!), frank

About Frank Indiviglio

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I believe that I was born with an intense interest in animals, as neither I nor any of my family can recall a time when I was not fascinated by creatures large and small. One might imagine this to be an unfortunate set of circumstances for a person born and raised in the Bronx, but, in actuality, quite the opposite was true. Most importantly, my family encouraged both my interest and the extensive menagerie that sprung from it. My mother and grandmother somehow found ways to cope with the skunks, flying squirrels, octopus, caimans and countless other odd creatures that routinely arrived un-announced at our front door. Assisting in hand-feeding hatchling praying mantises and in eradicating hoards of mosquitoes (I once thought I had discovered “fresh-water brine shrimp” and stocked my tanks with thousands of mosquito larvae!) became second nature to them. My mother went on to become a serious naturalist, and has helped thousands learn about wildlife in her 16 years as a volunteer at the Bronx Zoo. My grandfather actively conspired in my zoo-buildings efforts, regularly appearing with chipmunks, boa constrictors, turtles rescued from the Fulton Fish Market and, especially, unusual marine creatures. It was his passion for seahorses that led me to write a book about them years later. Thank you very much, for a complete biography of my experience click here.
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