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Waxing lyrical: a Waxwings special feature

Friday 21st December

Waxing lyrical: a Waxwings special feature

"Did you cedar waxwing?"

A good few years ago we had an in joke here at the Wildlife Trust – it went like this – 'Did you cedar waxwing'? Essentially it was a play on words, a verbal joke which might not work so well on the written page, but basically it related to a very rare bird, a cedar waxwing, that had hooked up with a flock of what are now known as Bohemian waxwings, and it was causing a real stir amongst bird watchers across the county.

The bird had been blown thousands of miles off course and with no cedar waxwing buddies to keep it company, it settled in with a flock of other waxwings. Whilst the cedar waxwing was very interesting in itself, what was fascinating was the fact that it relegated a very large flock of Bohemian waxwings, which in a normal year would have been a really notable sight themselves, to the status of mere also rans.

People would ask – 'did you ce-dar waxwing' (as in 'see the') , but little mention was made of the very large numbers of normal waxwings that were making a show of themselves all over Nottinghamshire.

Volcanic populations?

Bohemian waxwings are what is known as an irruptive species. This doesn't mean that they are common in volcanic areas, rather, it refers to the fact that here in the UK, waxwings occur sporadically, with populations 'irrupting' when food sources in their more usual territories of Scandinavia and Russia are scarce. The year the cedar waxwing accompanied them, 1996, was a very good year and it appears that this year too has provided excellent opportunities to see them in many parts of Nottinghamshire.

Whilst their size and triangular wing shape make the berry loving Bohemian waxwing easy to mistake for starlings at a distance, their colours and pointed feathery crest gives them away once you get a little closer.

Drunk and disorderly!

The Bohemian element of their name comes from their nomadic habits, partly derived from the French word for gypsy. However, I think that some of their other habits have far more in common with the Bohemians of the late 19th century, many of whom were so fond Paris. Whereas the Bohemian artists and writers had a well documented penchant for Absinthe – a strong alcoholic drink of almost mythical status; waxwings can eat berries that have started to ferment. If enough fermented berries are eaten then they can get drunk, leaving them temporarily unable to fly! As a result the birds have evolved to have a highly efficient liver to recover quickly.

Similarly, the Bohemian set which included Toulouse-Lautrec were known to be romantics, and waxwings are no slouches in the love department either, with courting couples known to pass a berry back and forth between their beaks to strengthen their bond between the pair.

If you fancy catching a glimpse of these beautiful and much travelled birds whilst they are here, click here visit our special Waxwings page - to view photos, and download our waxwing fact sheet and keep an eye out for them wherever you see trees laden with berries – happy spotting!

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