February 2017: Waxwings


Waxwing - Photo taken by Dominic Gwilliam-Bell December 2016


Waxwings are favourite winter visitors. They are about the size of starlings, but plumper. They have distinctive crests, are reddish-brown in colour, have black throats and black around their eyes. They have yellow and white on their wings with yellow edges to their tails. Adult birds have red fingers on their wings (reportedly looking like the red sealing wax which used to be used on letters and envelopes, hence the reason behind their name). 

They do not breed in the UK, but migrate in from their breeding grounds of Northern Europe, in winter, as food becomes scarce. The birds seen around here are most likely to have come from Scandinavia, or arctic Russia. Sudden invasions of large numbers are known as irruptions, and occur when winter berry foods fail in their native territories, and insects, which are their summer food, are of course no longer available.

According to the RSPB there may be up to 11,000 waxwings that winter in the UK, first arriving on the east coast, from  Scotland down to East Anglia from October and they may stay until April or early May. They move inland as they search for food, which consists of berries, particularly rowan and hawthorn, but also cotoneaster, rose hips, and left over orchard fruits such as apples. Around here you will often see them congregating in significant numbers in supermarkets and retail parks, which are often bordered by rowan or hawthorn bushes. They are not shy birds so can readily be seen in areas with human activity. According to the RSPB records, these flocks of birds can contain several hundred individuals in certain years, although I have never seen more than about 20 to 40, and in our garden never more than 2 or 3 birds. 

They are vocal birds and have a buzzing trilling call, often given in flight.

Interesting facts:        

Food Berries in autumn and winter may have fermented, and hence if waxwings eat these they may get so drunk they cannot fly. They have therefore developed a very efficient liver to deal with excess alcohol.

When waxwings court each other they pass a berry back and forth from the male to the female, aiding pair bonding.

Flocks tend to eat in shifts, so that all birds will have the opportunity to share available food.




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