Quoddy Nature Notes ~ Bohemian Waxwing

Bohemian Waxwing

Bohemian Waxwing

Bohemian waxwing eating an old crabapple.

We have two kinds of waxwings that may be seen here in the Quoddy Region: the Cedar waxwing Bombycillacedrorumand the Bohemian waxwing Bombycillagarrulus. Right now one is more apt to see a Bohemian waxwing than a Cedar waxwing,even though Cedar waxwings nest here and Bohemian waxwings nest in an area around northern Manitoba.  Although they look similar, there are subtle differences between the two types of waxwings, but the major points are that the Bohemian is the bigger bird and has a cinnamon or chestnut coloration on its undertail coverts, while the Cedar is white or pale yellow on its undertail coverts.  Both types of birds seem to be fastidious in their grooming.  The only time I ever saw a rumpled up waxwing was one that had apparently consumed a large measure of overripe choke cherries, and his disheveled appearance and tipsy behavior reminded me of a person that, had he been driving, would have been cited for OUI.

The Bohemian waxwing is circumpolar in the Northern hemisphere and breeds not only in North America but also in Northern Europe and Asia. In the winter they wander extensively, and the North American group roams as far as New England, although there may be many years between migrations.During this time the Eurasian Bohemian waxwings might be spotted anywhere from Japan to the UK.  Our Cedar waxwings breed from Nova Scotia to British Columbia and south to Georgia, and typically winter from southern New England to Central America and the CaribbeanIslands.

Our Cedar waxwings generally won’t come back here until the end of May.  Although their preferred diet is fruit, they will make do with blossoms and sap and insects before any fruit ripens.  Early orchard growers had a love/hate relationship with waxwings. Forbush(1913) noted that a scientist friend of his reported that a single waxwing would consume over 100 cankerworms a day.  Forbush also had friends with orchards, however, and they noted that waxwings would at times decimate their prized early cherries.  Fortunately, the scientist defended the birds, and eloquently indicated that the birds mostly consumed the wild fruit.  In the 1800’s waxwings were game birds, and thousands were slaughtered for market; a practice still in vogue in parts of Europe and Asia, but happily not here.

Waxwings are very gregarious and the flocks keep up a continuous twittering communication when feeding, but they don’t have a characteristic call.  It is thought that a call was not developed because the birds do not defend a territory. Waxwings are also very late in nesting; another characteristic that probably evolved with their diet.  They do feed their insects to their young for the first 3-4 days after hatching, but then the diet changes to mostly fruit. Waxwings have a large crop for their size, and can take up to 30 choke cherries at a sitting, and then regurgitatethese for their hungry youngsters.

While foraging for flying insects in midsummer, Cedar waxwings act like larger flycatchers, only mostly over ponds or slow moving streams. The waxwings, especially in the late afternoon, will often perch on bare branches over the water and dart out to catch their prey, and this can be a treat to the casual fisherman drifting by in a canoe.  When the trusting bird lands on your fishing pole, it doesn’t make any difference if the fish are biting or not.