For the Birds Radio Program: Bohemian Waxwings
(Recording of a Cedar Waxwing)
In the past few weeks I’ve had several calls about Bohemian Waxwings. They’re in Duluth in record numbers this winter, moving about in conspicuous flocks which arouse interest wherever they go. They’re fruit-eaters, so you’re most likely to see them if there are crabapples or mountain ash in your neighborhood.
Duluth’s location makes it one of the only cities in the eastern and central United States where Bohemian Waxwings appear every winter, but they also often turn up along the South Shore and down as far as central Minnesota and Wisconsin. They’re slightly larger than Cedar Waxwings, with a pearl gray underside and a rusty spot under the tail. Both species are elegantly sleek and crested, with a yellow band at the tip of the tail. Also, many individuals of both species have tiny red, drop-shaped waxy tips on their secondary flight feathers. Ornithologists have never figured out exactly what these little decorations are for–many individuals lack them, and they aren’t correlated with age, sex, or season.
The two species have different calls. Cedar Waxwings sound like tiny mice snoring:
Bohemians have a deeper, raspier sound, more like rats or Guinea Pigs snoring. Since they’re so rare in the Eastern U.S., their calls are not available on standard bird records.
Bohemian Waxwings are nomadic, moving about in huge flocks over the northern part of our continent and Eurasia. They’re known for a charming habit–they feed one another cherries or other fruits and berries, passing a morsel from bird to bird almost endlessly. No ornithologist has yet developed a credible scientific explanation for this. The habit certainly doesn’t seem to make sense for a bird which needs to eat three times its weight in berries every day. In 1917, Edward Forbush, the state ornithologist of Massachusetts, wrote of it, “Like some other plump and well-fed personages, the 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 nesting season once again arrives.” Although ornithologists’ styles have changed considerably since 1917, even the most scientific modern bird book describes waxwings as gregarious or amiable or friendly. These birds don’t even squabble over territory–they defend nothing more than the nest itself.
A couple of the calls I’ve had recently have been about waxwings that don’t seem quite sick, but act strange and allow people to pick them up–they seem, well, somehow they seem drunk. And that’s exactly what some of them are. If cold weather stops the flow of fresh sap to mountain ash berries and then there’s a thaw, the sugars in the berries may ferment. If a waxwing eats too many, it gets roaring drunk, staggering about on the ground or in the air, vulnerable to predators and accidents. If you find a drunk waxwing, it’s often a good idea to give it food and shelter until it dries out. Just remember that like all native American songbirds, waxwings are protected by law. As tempting as it is, they cannot legally be kept as pets.
(Recording of a Cedar Waxwing) This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”