Bohemian Waxwing vs Cedar Waxwing: ID Tips

Know what to look for the next time a waxwing bird feasts on your berry tree. Learn to ID a bohemian waxwing and cedar waxwing.

Birding Challenge: Bohemian Waxwing vs Cedar Waxwing

cedar waxwing Pearl Bouchard Bnb Bypc 2020Courtesy Pearl Bouchard
Cedar waxwings have white feathers under their tails.

Some birds are incredibly distinct, with one-of-a-kind features—nothing else looks like them. But for some species, a related bird is so similar that it forces us to take a second look. Waxwings are elegantly plumaged, crested birds that have bright yellow tail tips, wander in flocks and feast on berries. They are named for the red, waxy tips on their wings.  Learn how to tell the difference between a bohemian waxwing vs a cedar waxwing.

Psst—discover what cedar waxwings eat and how to attract them.

How to ID Cedar Waxwings

cedar waxwingCourtesy Deborah Bryk
Cedar waxwings and bohemian waxwings look quite similar.

Cedar waxwings have a thin black mask with a white outline, and a brown, occasionally ragged short crest. The birds are medium sized, with a body length about 6 inches, and a pale yellow belly. The squared tail tip features a bright yellow band.

Despite their name, no, they don’t have wings made of wax like Icarus of Greek mythology. Instead, they have small, red, waxy tips on certain wing feathers, noticeable only at close range. The number of red tips gives some clues about the birds’ identity. In cedar waxwings, many young birds (especially young females) have no red tips at all, while some adult males may have red tips on as many as nine wing feathers. These waxy tips don’t seem to serve any purpose other than decoration—one final accessory for the best-dressed birds.

Cedar Waxwing, Bombycilla Cedrorum In Winter In Snow, Nova Scotia, CanadaBlue Planet Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
Cedar waxwings are common birds across North America.

Cedar waxwings appear year-round in the northern half of the U.S. During the winter, they’re also seen in southern states. This species is widespread and could show up in practically any backyard.

Listen for their high-pitched sseee trill. Find out what a cedar waxwing call sounds like.

How to ID Bohemian Waxwings

bohemian waxwingCourtesy Justin Dutcher
Bohemian waxwings are grayer overall.

Bohemian waxwings are sometimes confused for their strikingly similar cedar waxwing cousins. Look for a reddish tinge on the face of a Bohemian, and the birds are grayer.

Another good way to tell the two species apart is to check the tail base color. Bohemians have bright reddish-brown coloring under the tail, while on cedar waxwings, those feathers are plain white. Bohemian waxwings also have bold yellow and white wing markings (which are absent on cedar waxwings). This stunning species is one of the top 9 most beautiful birds in America.

bohemian Waxwinghannurama/Getty Images
Bohemian waxwings have reddish coloring under their tails.

The Bohemian waxwing is a bird of far northern latitudes around the world. These birds are found in the north and northwest, spending summers in Alaska and western Canada. In winter, though, they move south and east, overlapping with the more common and widespread cedar waxwing, with flocks reaching the Atlantic coast in eastern Canada and the New England states. Or they may move southward in the Rockies, getting as far as Colorado.

They give a very fast and vibrato-heavy trill.

Where do cedar waxwings go in winter?

Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman
Kenn and Kimberly are the official Birds & Blooms bird experts. They are the duo behind the Kaufman Field Guide series. They speak and lead bird trips all over the world. When they're not traveling, they enjoy watching birds and other wildlife in their Northwest Ohio backyard. Fascinated with the natural world since the age of 6, Kenn has traveled to observe birds on all seven continents, and has authored or coauthored 14 books about birds and nature, including include seven titles in his own series, Kaufman Field Guides, designed to encourage beginners by making the first steps in nature study as easy as possible. His next book, The Birds That Audubon Missed, is scheduled to be published by Simon & Schuster in May 2024. Kenn is a Fellow of the American Ornithological Society, and has received the American Birding Association’s lifetime achievement award twice. Kimberly is the Executive Director of Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) in northwest Ohio. She became the Education Director in 2005 and Executive Director in 2009. As the Education Director, Kimberly played a key role in building BSBO’s school programs, as well as the highly successful Ohio Young Birders Club, a group for teenagers that has served as a model for youth birding programs. Kimberly is also the co-founder of The Biggest Week In American Birding, the largest birding festival in the U.S. Under Kimberly’s leadership, BSBO developed a birding tourism season in northwest Ohio that brings an annual economic impact of more than $40 million to the local economy. She is a contributing editor to Birds & Blooms Magazine, and coauthor of the Kaufman Field Guides to Nature of New England and Nature of the Midwest. Accolades to her credit include the Chandler Robbins Award, given by the American Birding Association to an individual who has made significant contributions to education and/or bird conservation. In 2017, she received a prestigious Milestone Award from the Toledo Area YWCA. Kimberly serves on the boards of Shores and Islands Ohio and the American Bird Conservancy.