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.**
A 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!
Nice post. Linkworthy. I want to know where the Victoria’s Secret CEWA is getting its hair done. Because that is some big sexy hair.
I would love to see a Victoria Secret model covered in the sleek feathers of a waxwing, with the same red fingernails and yellow toe-nails. Ahhhhh! (No real waxwings were harmed during this fantasy)
Robert, I feel like I’ve learned something unexpectedly new and disturbing about you. On the other hand, fantasies about models and wax would probably attract more readers than analyses of waxwing identification!
Kinky orange toe … er …tale “nails” on some of your Cedars.
tail, dammit, not tale…
Loved this post. Thanks for the tutorial 🙂
What a useful post, and entertaining too! Here in the UK it’s easy, if the waxwings ever kame it over they’re Bohemians.
sorry I don’t know what happened there, I meant to say, if the waxwings ever come over (ie from continental Europe)
Did I actually write that? I thought I just thought it. I am so embarrassed!
Great post Corey. We get Bohemians in northern California in winter occasionally but I have yet to find one. I keep looking though. Nice photos to compare the two. Victoria Secret model…hmmm. You might have added a photo for comparison purposes Corey.
We just had a flock of about 25 bohemians pass through Coxheath in Nova Scotia, Canada. This is the first time I have seen them.
It snowed a bit last night and this afternoon I had a flock of about 2 dozen Waxwings in or crabapple tree outside our front window. I’m pretty sure they were Bohemian not Cedar but I can’t remember if it had white on the wings. To me they really are quite similar.
Smithers, British Columbia..sort of coastal interior of BC We’re not really on the coast or in the interior..sort of in-between.
What’s the chance of my seeing 10 to 15 Bohemian waxwings sweep in for a munch on Ilex (holly berries) late in January/early February on Prince Edward Island, CA. (Stratford specically – across the river from Charlottetown). I remember a mostly brown shaded bird, a little smaller than a bluejay, bright yellow wing tips and orangy red tip of the tail. I may have the colours reversed as it’s been a while. The crown of the head reminded me of a jay. I don’t recall any brilliant colouring on the head, but there may have been. Didn’t appear to spook easily. I’m not a bird guy, but found them interesting and hadn’t seen them before or since.
Let me know what you think.
I had the pleasure of seeing a whole flock of what I believer to be waxwings in my blooming cherry trees and at my birdbath this morning, in SC. I’ve never seen them before, but after watching them completely cover my birdbath and more hovering above it, I was able to identify the black mark over the eyes, the yellow belly and definite yellow stripe at the base of the tail. Also from the back it looked like two white bars on each wing. Were these waxwings?
I see the Cedar Waxwing during the warm months here in Michigan but had the pleasure of seeing a flock of about a dozen Bohemians eating the dried berries on a shrub outside my kitchen window yesterday. Very beautiful and acrobatic birds as they manuevered to get those berries! Had a great time watching them.
I live in north Texas and I saw a flock of birds at the birdbath(at least 60). from the pictures they looked like the bohemians instead of the cedar is that possible? it is march 30th
Hi Corey. I’ll be posting Bohemians along with a cedar for comparison this week on WBW. We get both in N. Ontario, just lucky I guess. The Bohemians in a flock of about 100 were shot last week cleaning off some crab apple trees and the cedars in the summer in the forest.
I have a bohemian waxwing and live in central minnesota. We found it injured and hoping on the ground. We are trying to nurse it back to health while waiting to hear from the Wildlife people from the UoM.
I live in NE Texas near Texarkana had believe I have a Bohemian Waxwing in the yard. It seems unusual there would one this far south. It’s the size of the common cowbird but very round bodied. Almost fat looking. Could this be a Bohemian?
I live in Calera,AL. which is 30 miles south of Birmingham. We are almost in the geographical center of the state. On the weekend of April 9th & 10th there was a bird that caught my eye. I grabbed the binoculars and saw one of the most beautiful birds that i’ve ever seen. It had a crest, black mask, grey body, a yellow strip on the end of it’s tail, and red on the wings. It turned out that there at least 15 to 20 of them, and they were jumping from limb to limb. I don’t know if it was the Bohemian ro the Cedar waxwing. I was fortunate to see them, because as soon as they were startled they were gone. Any ideas as to which bird it was? Thanks
A friend and I saw five or six Cedar waxwings along the south bank of the Missouri River in downtown Kansas City, Mo., on May 24, at about 7:00 pm CST. We were on a bridge-like pier that extends to a river-side park, so we saw them very close-up at tree-top level. What a stroke of luck! We’d never seen anything like them, and we were astonished at their beautiful colors. A real treat.
I saw three waxwings June 12 in Toronto. Given our location, I would automatically thought they were cedar, but they were much more grey than tan. Is it possible that there could be Behomian’s in Toronto, Ontario?
@Joe: Either could occur but in summer you are almost definitely seeing Cedar Waxwings.
A friend and I saw 5 or more Bohemian Waxwings this morning. They seemed to be diving toward spider webs and picking off the spiders. Their coloring matches the depictions of immature Waxwings. They were not carrying bongo drums, but we think they were Bohemian! I’ve never seen Waxwings in Olympia, Washington. It was a joy to see them today.
I’ve enjoyed visits from both Cedar and Bohemian …having a little ‘dispute’ with my sister over which visited my back yard today. Since its January, I’m guessing I was right 🙂 They are beautiful! I got some great photos of them scooping snow …we finally got some of that on the weekend here in Saskatchewan. Those beautiful birds must like the cold …we started the day at about -37 celsius …supposed to be colder tonight. I hope they find a warm place to roost. Thanks for the useful information.
@ Rosemary and everyone else
January 15-20, huge flocks devouring berries throughout rural SK (Canada) area (one hr from Saskatoon). I have a heated bird bath in my front yard in town, the waxwings were practically lined up waiting their turn to sip and splash, even though this past week temperatures were frigid. The site of them just outside my window, is an uplifting site. If I could invite them all in for a warm place to sleep I would! That would certainly put my cat out of sorts!
Hope everyone is enjoying the beautiful gifts Nature offers us everyday.
Been watching and chuckling at 60 or so Bohemian Waxwings flying in loose formation around our house after 9″ of fresh snow, landing in our crab apple trees and eating the last of the fruit. Such colorful birds with so much energy.
Approximately 300 Bohemein waxwings picking mountain ash berries on St Johnsbury Academy’s campus…0735, 13 February 2012. Fantastic viewing opportunity for students and staff!
We have Bohemian Waxwings that migrate through St. George, Utah each spring. They come into the backyard and eat the berries off my Pyracantha bush. Thank you for the good identification article.
I have several pictures of birds that looks similar to the waxwings except that the coloring is predominantly orange with a lighter belly. I have asked around locally with no satisfactory results. Maybe its a completely different bird? I would be happy to send a picture if any one can help Thank you The pictures were taken in Aroostook County maine towards the end of june
We have had a flock of 20 to 25 bohemian waxwings picking at the leftover crabapples in the tree outside our kitchen door yesterday afternoon and this morning (March 1, 2012). I had not seen waxwings in our garden before this past June when 3 cedar waxwings devoured my small strawberry patch! Amazing!!
Yesterday a flock of about 20 Bohemian Waxwing flew onto our property for a quick rest. They were truly lovely and a treat for all to see. We didn’t know what type of bird they were until one of our guests identified them. They looked identical to the photos you have here on this post. Thanks for the information. It was a great sight to see.
I live in Altadena, CA (at the base of the San Gabriels just above Pasadena). I saw what I originally thought was a Bohemian waxwing. Yesterday, I saw a pair but couldn’t get my glasses out in time to identify them.
Here’s where I’m confused: the build and call seem similar to a cedar waxwing, but there is definitely a red patch under the tail like a Bohemian waxwing. It didn’t have any yellow on the breast. Could it be a juvenile?
I’ve never seen this bird in my yard before, and I don’t know of any other local bird with a crest that high other than a Steller’s Jay, which of course is easy to spot.
A bit about the weather here, because according to the info above, it seems they should only come south in the fall/winter (and not this far south). It is spring, but in the Los Angeles basin, spring is only a theoretical term. We are in between the rainy and the dry seasons. The temperature yesterday was 65; today it’s close to 80.
If this means anything, the altitude of the mountains to the north is up to 5,700 feet (1,740 meters).
@Laura: I have never heard of Cedar Waxwings having orange undertail coverts. The call is similar…
Also, a juvenile would look very streaky and you would definitely know it was not an adult.
Interesting observation! If you can get pictures it would be great.
The Bohemian waxwing has been spotted in Lancaster Pennsylvania This morning of July, 4th. I know this for fact because I and my girlfriend out foor a latenite walk and ended up rescuing a baby Bohemian waxwing and returning it to its nest baffling by its beautiful yellow color on the tip of its tail and some fine smaller threads of red on its small wings brought me to discover this site and surprised to find a rare bird of its origin this far south and thinking this could be perfect new attraction to our Pennsylvania region.
@Christopher M: That would be the first breeding record in PA that I know of, so I hope you took pictures – but I see nothing in your description that indicates anything other than a Cedar Waxwing.
I agree about your comment Cory. I am aware of the rare occasion and possibly confusion between ceder and Bohemian breed.I am out on a mission to track the Bohemian breed here and follow up if both breeds are in exsistence here in this region.I admit the habitat volume of wildlife is on the rise here in southern Pennsylvania so I wouldn’t dismiss this type of waxwing here and existing in low numbers I ll do research also taking photos of sighttings of my findings if I can prove possible wish me luck!
We have waxwings flying into our large windows. I have closed the curtains hoping that will stop them and so far it has helped. Unfortunately three beautiful birds died though. What causes them to do this and how do we prevent it in the future. We are in northwest Illinois and have had cedar waxwings feed on our crab apple tree before high winds knocked it down. There is no red on the wings of these birds however. Does that mean they are bohemians?
Just had a flock of about 100 bohemian wax wings land in 2 mountain ash trees in our yard in Mackenzie BC and strip them of their berries in about 1/2 an hour.
On the 5th.Dec.2012(last Wed.)I had a pair of Bohemium Waxwings in my garden,feeding on red berries,which are abundant on my shrubs.I have photos of them and sent the photos to the Irish Wildlife,who said they were Bohemium Waxwings and not Cedar Waxwings,as I had thought they were. It was amazing to have them visit my garden.Bob
I live in etreme NW Pennsylvania and I had a Bohemian Waxwing at my suet feeder yesterday. I have Cedars that come in all the time, so I knew it wasn’t one of them. It was so way cool!
There are a few dark birds with diffuse speckles among the cedar waxwing flock in my crabapple tree (12/30/12). Are there any standard interlopers with cedar waxwings these could be?
@et_al: Sounds like European Starlings to me.
My wife and I just spent three days at Skyland Resort in the Shenandoah National Park, and this morning we saw approximately 8 huge waxwings (Cardinal/Robin-sized, in length and girth) that at first we thought were ruddy-dull-colored female Cardinals. They had the waxwing crest, the high-pitched waxwing call, but to my ear not quite as high-pitched as a Cedar Waxwing. We were dumbstruck by how large they all were, feeding on berries ca. 6:30 AM. I know this is quite far south for this species, but we know really well what Cedar Waxwings look like, and these were much, much larger, more uniformly colored (grey-brown-ruddy) without a lighter breast. In our bird book when we got home today, what we saw in size, shape, color sure looks like a Bohemian Waxwing. But we are not bird afficianodos. We just love to see different birds and hear their songs. Has anyone else seen a Bohemian Waxwing this far south, in the mountains of Virginia?
Saw a waxwing chick. At. Work. (A small chem. Plant in N.j. Never an adult. First and only one. I will hate to retire in a couple of years, I see more wildlife in and around my plant than in the local parks and woods.
seen about 10 or so taking berries off the tree in back yard… and they flew away and never came back… in prince George bc
I found a waxwing in the yard today and was so excited that it could be a Bohemian until I ran across your article. Now I am sure it is a Cedar since we are currently stationed in South Carolina. I can’t see any red tips in the photos I was able to take. Does the Cedar Waxwing hide this when tapping the ground. Also, none of them have that tuft sticking up above their heads. Did I get this bird all wrong? It is the closest look a like in my Audubon Field Guide.