Waxwing Spotlight

Fascinating Facts

Waxwings are social birds that form large, compact, and noisy groups, sometimes in the thousands. At first glance, a flock of waxwings could be mistaken for starlings instead as the two species are similar in size and have a similar profile. However, look more closely and you should spot the characteristic crest and the soft, peach-brown tones to the plumage. You will see the black throat and the black mask around the eye, the yellow-tipped tail and the delicate-looking ‘wax-drops’ that end some of the wing feathers.

Waxwing

The waxwing does not breed in the UK but is a winter visitor from Scandinavia. The first British arrivals are usually seen on the east coast from Scotland to East Anglia and gradually move inland in search of food. Some years can bring larger irruptions than others. The numbers depend on the breeding population and the amount of food, predominantly berries, that is available to them.

Migrant waxwings arrive from Scandinavia between October and March, often staying until April or May. The UK can receive anything from a few dozen individuals to as many as 12,000 each year. In years where many birds arrive, they tend to disperse further south and west throughout the winter as they deplete the berry crops.

Our native rowan is the favoured plant of waxwings, but they enjoy others too, such as hawthorn, cotoneaster and rosehips. Waxwings prefer to feed within bushes and shrubs, taking the berries directly from the plant.

Two species of waxwing are seen in Britain: the commoner Bohemian Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) and much scarcer Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum). The separation between the two can often be difficult; though the colour of the bird provides a good indicator. A bohemian waxwing has a grey chest and belly while a cedar waxwing has a brown chest with a yellow belly.

waxwing

Waxwings can get drunk from eating overripe berries that have started to ferment and produce alcohol! Flocks of intoxicated birds have been known to simultaneously hit large windows.

Waxwings can eat up to 1,000 berries a day which is twice their body weight and can strip a tree bare of its fruit in hours. They tend to prefer eating red berries to orange berries, but they will choose the latter over yellow and white ones. This pattern is seen in many other berry-eating birds.

The waxwing’s crest is used principally for courtship, raised almost vertical as part of a wider display directed towards a potential mate.

It is believed that the association of waxwings with selflessness and giving, stems from their courtship habits. When a male waxwing sets out in search of a mate, it often carries a berry – passed to a female bird in an effort to impress her. The female waxwing then takes the berry and returns it to the male, with the gifting ritual repeated many times until, eventually, mating takes place.

Individual waxwings seldom return to Britain. This is demonstrated by the incredibly low number of successful ringing recoveries. That said, in 2010, one particular bird bucked this trend, returning to the village of Kintore, in Aberdeenshire, almost a year to the day it had first been ringed by the Grampian Ringing Group. This was only the third confirmed record of a waxwing returning to the UK in a subsequent winter from over 4,500 ringed birds successfully banded.


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