Waxwing

Bird of the Month January 2024: Waxwing

Something a bit more exotic for my bird of the month this January: the waxwing, or Bohemian waxwing, to give it its full name. A few waxwings come to the UK each winter. But some winters, such as the current one, are true ‘waxwing winters’. This means that thousands of birds cross the North Sea to our shores looking for the berries they can no longer find on the Continent. They can sometimes be incredibly easy to see, as well, due to their love of rowan and cotoneaster berries. Birds will often happily gorge on berries in supermarket carparks, for instance, seemingly oblivious to passing shoppers. So, make sure you keep your eyes peeled for this beautiful visitor from the north.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Waxwings are smallish, plump passerines, about the same size as a starling. Due to both species’ habit of gathering in flocks at the top of trees, a cursory glance can lead to the two being mistaken for each other at times. Many is the time I’ve felt my pulse racing as I thought I’d found a flock of waxwings only to realise I’d found some starlings instead. While starlings are also beautifully exotic-looking birds, with closer views, you can see that there is nothing else like a waxwing in the UK. Largely peachy buff in colour, they also have a distinct black bandit eye mask, black chin and prominent crest. There is a rusty red area under the tail, which has a yellow tip.

Waxwing flock
In the wrong light, a treetop flock of waxwings looks quite starling-like

The pointed wings are a mixture of black, white and yellow, with a few red-tipped feathers. These red tips look very much like sealing wax, hence the bird’s name. Another distinctive feature is the waxwing’s silky appearance. The soft, dense plumage produces this effect, presumably an adaptation to life in northern forests. In fact, the Bohemian waxwings’ genus, Bombycilla, translates as ‘silk-tail’ in reference to this feature. Males and females have very similar plumage, although the latter’s wing patterns are usually less bold. The bird’s beautiful, trilling call, meanwhile, is worth learning. This is sometimes the first thing to draw attention to a nearby flock.

Waxwings
The red, waxy wing markings are just visible on these birds

Bird of the Boreal Forest

Bohemian waxwings’ breeding range more or less circles the globe and includes northern Sweden, Finland, Russia, Canada and Alaska. This band encompasses the taiga region, our northernmost forests. Contrary to their common name, they do not breed in Bohemia, a region of Czechia, although they do winter there. Crucially, boreal forests contain large areas of freshwater. This results in good insect availability, the waxwings’ preferred summer food. Outside of the breeding period, waxwings feed almost exclusively on fruit. They particularly like rowan berries, but also eat hawthorn, apples, cotoneaster and blackberries. An arrowhead-shaped tongue helps them to manoeuvre large berries in their mouths. Interestingly, like many other berry-eaters, they seem to prefer red fruits, but will then resort to orange ones when these run out. Least favourite, and the last they move onto, are yellow and white berries.

Waxwing
Waxwings can swallow most berries whole

The Bombycilla genus includes two other closely related birds, the cedar and the Japanese waxwing. The ranges of both species overlap with that of Bohemian waxwings. Smaller than their two relatives, cedar waxwings are only found in the Americas. They breed across much of southern Canada and the northern half of the United States. Some birds are resident all year while others winter in southern US states, Central America and the Caribbean. As their name suggests, outside of the breeding season when they eat insects, they primarily eat cedar berries and similar fruits. Confusingly, the Japanese waxwing doesn’t breed in its namesake country, instead nesting in the far east of Russia and north-east China. In winter, it travels to Korea, Japan and parts of China. Unlike Bohemian and cedar waxwings, the Japanese waxwing lacks the waxy red wing markings and has a red rather than a yellow tail tip.

This lone waxwing arrived on a windy day in Shetland last October

Northern Nomads

Once nesting is over, most waxwings leave the breeding range. However, instead of migrating in the set way that, say, warblers or waders tend to, all three species of waxwing are largely nomadic. Although they have a core winter range, if they exhaust all the fruit in this area, they will disperse to find food. This is called irruptive behaviour. Crossbills, grosbeaks, redpolls and nutcrackers are just a few of the other species that also irrupt if food supplies run low close to their core range. How big waxwing irruptions are depends on how good berry crops are from one place to the next. In years when the crop is poor in Scandinavia and eastern Europe, large numbers of birds can turn up in the UK. This contrasts to most winters when just a few are reported, often just reaching places like Shetland and Orkney.

Waxwings
Waxwings are an irruptive species, travelling to where the food is

Although high in sugars, fruit isn’t particularly nutritious. This means that waxwings have to eat an awful lot of berries every day in the winter. As a result, once they find suitable food, they will stay and eat as much as possible. Only once it is gone will they move on to look for a new spot. Waxwings can help to disperse seeds widely in this way. Their behaviour also makes it relatively easy to see the birds once you know they are in an area with a good number of berry trees. You can be reasonably sure they will stick around for a day or two to clean supplies out, giving you a chance to catch up with them. In their single-mindedness, they also become relatively tame whilst feeding. As a result, waxwings are often more than happy to settle into even busy locations for a few days. Supermarket carparks and retail parks, which are often planted with rowans and cotoneasters, are surprisingly popular! They also readily come to gardens with fruit put out for them.

Waxwing
This bird was in Tesco carpark a few years ago; other supermarkets are available…

Waxwing Winter Wonderland

The good news is, this has already been the best waxwing winter for years. Huge flocks of up to 500 birds have been seen in some locations. By the week of the winter solstice, birds were across much of the eastern half of England, with only the southwest and Wales missing out. They are likely to continue to spread west through January as they move onto new sources of food. Here’s hoping that if it hasn’t been a waxwing winter for you yet, it will be soon!

Waxwing
Waxwings use their arrowhead-shaped tongues to manoeuvre berries

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