For the Birds Radio Program: Waxwings

Original Air Date: Jan. 2, 1987

Duluthians are lucky enough to see waxwings year round—though not necessarily the same species.

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![Bohemian Waxwing] ( “Bohemian Waxwing”) (Recording of a Cedar Waxwing)

That sound, like a little mouse snoring, is the call of the Cedar Waxwing. Usually there are quite a few Cedar Waxwings in town in early winter, but this year, although 648 Bohemian Waxwings were counted on Duluth’s Christmas Bird Count, only one single Cedar Waxwing was found. Bohemian Waxwings virtually always outnumber Cedars here in winter, but not normally by that big a margin.

Duluth’s perfect location makes it one of the only cities in the eastern and central United States where Bohemian Waxwings occur regularly. Perhaps because people here are used to seeing waxwings all year, a lot of Duluthians take our wintering species for granted, but this bird is so unusual outside the Northland that it’s not found on any of the twelve bird-song albums that I use in producing this program. It’s lower-pitched and louder than the Cedar Waxwing’s–sort of like a bunch of great big rats snoring. It’s bigger than the Cedar Waxwing, with chestnut instead of whitish under-tail coverts, and small white patches in the wing. The Bohemian Waxwing is native to Scandinavia as well as Canada–perhaps the sight of a flock in winter made a few of Duluth’s early settlers feel right at home.

Waxwings are well-known for an endearing habit–they feed one another cherries or other fruits or berries, passing a morsel from bird to bird almost endlessly. If one bird finally swallows it, the flock starts the whole ritual all over. No ornithologist has developed a credible scientific explanation for this, except that the birds seem so awfully nice and sweet. The habit certainly doesn’t seem to make sense, especially for a bird that needs to eat about three times its weight in berries every day. Around 1917, Edward Forbush, the state ornithologist of Massachusetts, wrote of it, “Like some other plump and well-fed personages, the Cedar Waxwing is good-natured, happy, tender-hearted, affectionate and blessed with a good disposition. It is fond of good company. When the nesting season is past, each harmonious little family joins with others until the flock may number from thirty to sixty individuals. They fly in close order, and keep well together through the winter and spring until the nesting-season once again arrives.” Although ornithologists’ styles have changed since 1917, even the most scientific, objective modern bird book will describe waxwings as gregarious or amiable or friendly. They don’t even squabble over territory–they defend nothing more than the nest itself.

Waxwings appear to be related to the Phainopepla of the American Southwest. The British Ornithologists’ Union classifies them in the same family, although the American Ornithologists’ Union puts them in two separate families. But the relationship to other birds is obscure– ornithologists consider waxwings a relict group whose close relatives have vanished. They are called Waxwings for the bright red coloring of the bare shafts of some of the secondary wing feathers, which resembles sealing wax. The British call our Bohemian Waxwing simply the Waxwing, because it is the only one found in Europe. The reason we call it “Bohemian” is obscure, but my guess is that the bird’s erratic wanderings and unusual social customs seemed Bohemian to whichever explorer named the species. (Recording of a Cedar Waxwing)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”