For the Birds Radio Program: Bohemian Waxwing

Original Air Date: Oct. 20, 1995

Today Laura Erickson reports an early winter visitor to the Northland, the Bohemian Waxwing. 3:09

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This fall has been a peculiar one in many ways. For weeks, bazillions of Swainson’s Thrushes were everywhere, and now record numbers of White-throated Sparrows are all over the place. A few people who live in the woods have told me about dozens of Ovenbirds actually visiting their feeders. Gray Jays are turning up at woodsy suet feeders much further south than they usually come in October. And suddenly, for no apparent reason, Bohemian Waxwings are back.

Bohemian Waxwings are the Cedar Waxwings’ bigger, more exotic cousin. These striking birds with their sleek plumage and dignified demeanor move about in flocks, affably pigging out and chattering like little boys at a Cub Scout pack meeting. Their pointed crest looks like they’re wearing a cap backwards, as is the fashion among Cub Scouts as well, though Bohemian Waxwings wouldn’t be caught dead with their shirt tails sticking out.

The Bohemian Waxwing is the only waxwing species found in Europe and mainland Asia, so the British simply call it the Waxwing. Our name for it comes, not because this is a native of Bohemia but from its nomadic habits. It turns up along the Lake Superior shoreline virtually every winter, but in some years it comes down in huge numbers, and during these years may appear anywhere in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

One winter when Sigurd Olson discovered Bohemian Waxwings in his forest, he wrote a lovely article for the Star Journal. He wrote:

I thought as I watched those beautiful birds that their name was a good one, that they and their kind knew better than all other species the secret of freedom and finding variety.

For they did not migrate according to the dictates of their hormones as others did. They travelled when they chose. Theirs was a spirit worth recognizing, one that man could well afford to ponder.

It was the natural thing to migrate, the normal reaction to seek a clime more agreeable, where living was more of the dream it should be, for life was never meant to be a struggle.

It only became hard and cruel and relentless when man decided to violate the old laws of migration and show himself and nature that he could live in one place in spite of his inclinations. Then life became a battle to see if he could survive.

The struggle still goes on and men fight wars for the right to hold certain parts of the earth for their own, for the right to live without having to move.

As though reading my thoughts, the Bohemians took to the air, flew straight upward into the sun. I had watched them long enough and was shivering with the cold. The mountain ash was stripped clean of fruit and the birds were off again to another land of milk and honey.