Alert Status: Green
Identifying Features: Plump, slightly smaller than a starling. Prominent crest. Reddish-brown with a black throat, a small black eye-mask, yellow and white in the wings and a yellow-tipped tail.
Average Length: 18cm
Average Lifespan: 5 years
Average Wingspan: 30 - 36 cm
Beak type: Seeds
Natural: Mostly berries, hips & haws.
How to feed: Waxwings will eat rowan and hawthorn berries in urban gardens.
What to feed: You may also be able to entice Waxwings into your garden by hanging apples from branches.
Nesting: Waxwings do not breed in Britain. The cup-shaped nest is built by both sexes from twigs, grass and moss in pine trees or scrub
Where to see: The first arrivals each winter are usually seen on the east coast from Scotland to East Anglia, but birds will move inland in search of food.
The Bohemian Waxwing
If you are ever fortunate enough to observe a waxwing, you’ll know for certain what it is. With its silky smooth, pale beige-pink plumage and its streamlined crest, it is very easy to distinguish from other birds. Slightly smaller than a starling and quite plump, the waxwing has a “black mask” across the eyes. The red wax-like droplets on its wings and the yellow streaks on its tail really make this glamourous bird stand out from the crowd!
Breeding does not take place in the UK since the waxwing is a winter visitor here.
They spend their summers in Northern Europe, feeding mainly on insects. Once the cold weather starts, they migrate south for warmth.
In the UK, are more likely to be seen on the east coast from Scotland down to East Anglia but they will disperse further west as they deplete available berry crops.
Keep an eye out for Waxwings starting to arrive in the UK in October; they often stay until April or May
Waxwings visit the UK erratically in winter but can appear in great numbers during what is known as 'irruption years'. Irruptions occur when their population is higher than the food supply (particularly rowan berries) can sustain in their normal European range and this triggers movements of large flocks to the south and west.
Individual birds are unlikely to re-appear in the UK again after they migrate. Records from 4,500 ringed birds in Grampian show only 3 confirmed cases where an individual bird has returned for a second visit. By contrast they have a large area they will search for food in. One of those Grampian-ringed birds was discovered in Russia, some 3,714km northeast just 11 months later!
Waxwings can eat twice their body weight in rowan berries in one day – that’s over 1,000 berries!
Their main diet after migrating to the UK consists of rowan berries, rosehips, hawthorn and cotoneaster berries.
These are common plants used around shopping centre carparks so you may be able to see them while popping out for groceries!
Like most berry-eating birds, red berries are most favoured; followed by orange, yellow then white ones.
Despite their size and plump shape, waxwings are surprisingly agile and can often be found dangling, upside down from branches to reach the juiciest berries!
They are partial to fruit, so if they are in your area you could try hanging apples from any available trees to entice them in!
Get close enough and you may hear its distinct high-pitched trilling vocalisation, which is more of a “sirrr, sirrr, sirrr” whistling than anything else.
Waxwings have been observed to get drunk on eating over-ripe, fermented berries. This makes them less agile and can cause them to fly into windows and other obstacles.
Waxwings are surprising long-lived birds and so will usually have small clutches. Their crests are principally used in courtship and will also perform mating dances to attract a partner. This low, fluffy posture is quite different to its stiff, upright stance when threatening a rival.
Both parents help to build their cup-shaped nest made from twigs, grass and moss, hidden away in pine trees or scrub. At this time of year, their main food is insects such as mosquitos and midges, both for the adults and feeding their young.
In folklore the waxwing is a symbol of generosity and selflessness. This is probably due to the mating ritual of the male offering tasty and juicy berries to a female in an effort to impress her.
Although this may not be quite such the selfless act since, if he succeeds, he will be spreading his genes over a rival's.
The Waxwing as described here is the Bohemian Waxing (Bombycilla garrulous) The UK can also get a very rare visit from the Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum).
Telling the difference can be difficult but the different colourways are:
Bohemian: Grey chest and belly – Cedar: brown chest and yellow belly
Bohemian: undertail brownish/orange – Cedar: white undertail