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Waxwing

All about waxwings

There are several different types of waxwing; in the UK you are most likely to see the ‘Bohemian waxwing’. These berry-loving, colourful birds from Northern Europe, sometimes venture into the UK during winter if there is a shortage of food in their Scandinavian breeding grounds. They are often mistaken for starlings due to the triangular shape of their wings.

What to look for

Both female and male waxwings grow to around 20cm in length and are reddish-brown in colour. Look out for their distinctive head crests and yellow-tipped tails. They have black, white and red wing markings; their black throats stand out underneath black mask shapes around their eyes.

Did you know

  • Waxwings were given their name due to the bright red tips on some of their wing feathers, which look like drops of red sealing wax that were used on envelopes and letters. As a waxwing gets older the number and size of its “wax tips” increases. The name Bohemian is in reference to their nomadic behaviour during the winter, when they are continually on the move in search of fruit and berries.
  • Bohemian waxwings are very vocal; their most familiar call is a high, rapid buzzing trill of sharp notes which can sound like a small bell. As they are always on the move, they do not have common songs normally used to defend territories.
  • During winter, waxwings can eat berries that have started to ferment and produce alcohol. If enough fermented berries are eaten then they can get drunk, which can leave them temporarily unable to fly! As a result of this, waxwings have evolved to have a highly efficient liver to recover quickly.
  • Waxwings are very sociable birds and while feeding they are highly cooperative. The flock eat in shifts with one group feeding first and then moving out of the way for the next so that they share what food there is between all of the birds in a flock.
  • When waxwings court each other, the male will pass a berry to the female and then she will pass it back to him. They will continue to pass this berry back and forth numerous times; this may help to strengthen the bond that the pair share with each other.

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Where to see

During years when there is a shortage of berries, flocks of waxwings will descend through Europe heading south and westward. Occasionally the need for food sees them arrive on the east coast of Britain from Scotland down to East Anglia. As the crop of berries is depleted they will move further inland.

During the winter, waxwings can always be found in flocks, often collecting in berry trees, of which rowan and hawthorn are particular favourites. Waxwings can often be found in urban areas as these berry trees are frequently found in supermarket car parks and along suburban roads.

 

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