Waxwings are among the most beautiful of passerines and when one gets good looks at any of the three species that occur worldwide those looks are almost always among the highlights of a birding day.  In North America there are two species of waxwing that one might encounter.  The careful and prepared observer will have no difficulty telling the two apart provided a decent look is achieved and often even when such a look can’t be managed.  Though we here at 10,000 Birds can do nothing to ensure that you are a careful observer we will provide this post to ensure that you are a prepared observer.  Read on, then, to learn how to tell a Cedar Waxwing, also known as Bombycilla cedrorum from Bombycilla garrulus or Bohemian Waxwing.

Note the red-orange undertail coverts and the gray chest and belly on this BohemianWaxwing.

Your first clue to telling the two apart is simple.  If it is not late fall or winter and you are not in northern Canada, Alaska, or the higher mountains in the northwestern United States or southwestern Canada, then you are seeing a Cedar Waxwing.*  Bohemian Waxwings live way up north or not quite so far north but at high altitudes except in winter.  If you live in Pennsylvania and it is June and you think you have a Bohemian Waxwing you are wrong.**

Cedar Waxwing that was easily identified by the fact it was in New York in July.

So, unless you are one of the lucky few who live in territory where Bohemian Waxwings can be found year-round and Cedar Waxwings also show up to breed then you only have to worry about the identification puzzle that the two waxwings pose in late fall, or, more likely, the depths of winter.  And, really, there is no better time to puzzle over an identification issue than winter because what else do you have to do in winter?  Shovel more snow?

Bohemian Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus

Now, if it is winter and you see some waxwings that you can’t figure out there are two basic differences to consider: size and plumage.***  Size is easily dispensed with and might not be of much help without other birds around to compare your waxwing to.  Bohemian Waxwings are bigger, chunkier, and brawnier then the sleek, thin, Cedar Waxwing.  Bohemian Waxwings are only an inch longer than Cedar Waxwings but weigh almost twice as much on average.  Granted, size is the easiest field mark to get wrong, but if you are stuck looking at a bird that is silhouetted and it looks like it shops from the husky rack at JCPenney then it is likely you have a Bohemian Waxwing.  If the bird is as thin as a Victoria’s Secret model then you likely have a Cedar Waxwing (though if the bird is wearing lingerie you are likely on drugs).

In addition to this Cedar Waxwing‘s slim shape also note that the wingtips only have red on them.

Hopefully, though, when you see a waxwing it won’t be backlit and you will be able to see some details of the plumage.  If that is the case it is a relatively simple and straightforward identification.  The clearest field mark is the rusty orange undertail of the Bohemian Waxwing.  If the undertail is orangeish then the bird is a Bohemian Waxwing.  If it is white it is a Cedar Waxwing.  Other marks include the gray chest and belly of the Bohemian Waxwing vs. the brownish chest and yellow belly of the Cedar Waxwing, the much more extensive color on the wings of the Bohemian Waxwing, which will include yellow and white to go with the Cedar Waxwing‘s red, and, in flight, the white in the upperwing of the Bohemian Waxwing vs. the plain gray of the Cedar Waxwing‘s wings.

One more good field mark that is particular helpful when one sees a perched waxwing from behind are the white tertials of a Cedar Waxwing that will appear as two vertical white lines going partway up the bird’s back, like you can kind of make out in the picture below.  Bohemian Waxwings will lack this mark altogether.

I hope this identification post was helpful and you feel prepared to tell those waxwings apart.  Now if only a Japanese Waxwing would show in North America…now that would be a fun identification puzzle to figure out!

*Actually, there is an even easier way to tell if you are seeing are seeing a Bohemian Waxwing or not.  If you are in the presence of Bill Thompson III you are not seeing a Bohemian Waxwing.  Bill is doing his darnedest to change that though.  And now Bill has seen Bohemian Waxwings so this whole footnote has no point.  Darn it.

**Unless you are not wrong, in which case I would be wrong.  But I am willing to risk the .0000000001% chance of you seeing a Bohemian Waxwing in June in Pennsylvania and reading this blog post and calling me out on it.

***Their voices are different as well but because both birds have such high-pitched voices that many can’t even hear it seems cruel to point out that Sibley says the Bohemian Waxwing‘s call is “Similar to Cedar but calls lower-pitched and more clearly trilled; trill slower, more like a rattle” and Peterson says the Bohemian Waxwing‘s call is “rougher than thin note of Cedar Waxwing.”  To hear Bohemian Waxwing calls click here and click here for Cedar Waxwing.

One of each North American waxwing species is in the picture above.

This post has been submitted to Bird Photography Weekly #130.  Go check it out!

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Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy, their son, Desmond Shearwater, and their indoor cat, B.B. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.