"The Oldie is an incredible magazine - perhaps the best magazine in the world right now" Graydon Carter, founder of Air Mail and former Editor of Vanity Fair

Subscribe to the Oldie and get a free cartoon book


Bird of The Month: Waxwing

Blog | By John McEwen | Mar 27, 2024

Migration is an annual routine. The ‘irruption’ comes out of the need to survive. This is spectacularly true of the waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus), renowned for its beauty.

‘Waxwing winters’ occur – often at intervals of years – when starvation in the bird’s far northern breeding grounds forces it to wander.

In 1955, when James Fisher’s Bird Recognition 3 was published, he wrote, ‘Most authorities hold that the waxwing is not migratory; but mass movements in search of food take place in every winter, though in some winters the flocks do not roam a very great distance from their breeding ground.’

Hence the excitement of British ‘waxwing winters’, which dates back to 1686. The 19th century saw five. Since 1990, waxwings have been seen every winter; an irruption, such as in 2004/5, brings up to 12,000 in wandering flocks.

David Bannerman (1886-1979), in The Birds of the British Isles, wrote, ‘The waxwing cannot possibly be confused with any other bird to be met with in the British Isles – or, for that matter, in the whole Palaearctic Region.’

He considered it ‘of such exceptional beauty’ that he departed from his usual practice and described one specimen.

He admired the ‘delicacy and softness’ of its feathers (bombyx/ ‘silk’),‘the vinous tints of its plumage offset by the dark background of some berry-laden bush’. He described such details as the sealing ‘wax-red appendages’ in the secondary wing feathers, which account for its name in English.

The plumage is the same in both genders.

An arboreal bird, it breeds in the world’s northern forests up to the tree line. Its main food is fruit. In summer, this can include wild strawberries, raspberries and cherries. In winter, it can eat mistletoe. It also consumes the fruit readily available in public spaces and

private gardens – rowan berries, crab apples, rose hips and cotoneaster.

This leads to convenient, starling- like accessibility. ‘Often it seems almost to court closer scrutiny, its confiding behaviour being sometimes as surprising as its plumage is distinctive’ (Bannerman).

Doubtless, the lack of human contact in its formative upbringing in northern forests is partly responsible. I have a distant memory of a TV programme showing a boy on the Faroe Islands literally festooned with waxwings, several perched on his arms, shoulders and head.

All this contributes to the excited expectation when waxwings are about. They are guzzlers. One bird was seen to eat 600-1,000 berries in six hours,

decorating the ground with a bright red dropping every fourth minute. Sightings circulate, and birdwatchers know they have to be quick to experience possibly the only chance in a lifetime.

A winter flock was once reported in my home borough of Camden, north London. Having never seen a waxwing, I took it as a red alert. During lunch, a flock of what I momentarily thought were starlings settled in the bare branches of the undistinguished sycamore tree at the end of the garden. The prominent crests revealed the identity of the silhouetted birds. Binoculars desperately retrieved, they were gone.

This winter, a flock of 500 arrived in early November. Keep those binoculars handy.