Named for the nomadic ranging patterns of their large winter flocks, Bohemian Waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus) are winter visitors in northern New England, where flocks can be seen eating the sugary fruits of mountain ash, serviceberry and crab apples, among others. Very soon they will return to their breeding grounds in the boreal forests of Alaska and western Canada.
Adults and some juveniles of Bohemian (and Cedar) Waxwings have variable numbers of red, wax-like nubs on the tips of their secondary feathers. Research shows that these nubs are important in the social hierarchy of a flock. They, and other plumage characters (brightness of yellow tail band and wing-stripe), increase in number and/or prominence with age. The red and yellow carotenoid pigments of waxwing plumage are derived exclusively from dietary sources.
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Worldwide there are three species of waxwings: Cedar, Bohemian and Japanese. The first two species occur in North America, and while they share many traits, they also have their differences. Both species look somewhat alike, in that they both have crests and black eye masks. Both species also form nomadic, social flocks that are constantly in search of sugary fruit. However, there are distinct differences in their distribution, size and plumage.
RANGE: If you’re in the Northeast, and it’s summer, the waxwing you’re looking at almost assuredly is a Cedar Waxwing, as they are permanent residents, breeding and overwintering here. Bohemian Waxwings breed in northwest Canada and Alaska, and are only seen in the Northeast in the late fall, winter, or early spring, when they extend their range in search of fruit. Often they will join flocks of cedar waxwings as they feed. They are an irruptive species, irregularly appearing south of their normal winter range in large numbers.
SIZE: Even though Bohemian Waxwings are only about an inch longer than Cedar Waxwings, they are nearly double their weight – Bohemians are chunky, Cedars are svelte.
PLUMAGE: Both of these species have a black eye mask, a yellow (or occasionally orange, due to diet) tail band and frequently red wax at the tip of some of their feathers. The easiest way to distinguish Cedar from Bohemian Waxwings is to look at the color of their undertail feathers (coverts). Bohemians’ are rust-colored and Cedars’ are white. Bohemian Waxwings have a gray chest and belly, while Cedars have a brownish chest and yellow belly.
At this time of year you can find both species gorging on crab apples, often side by side, though Bohemians are soon to depart for the Northwest.
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Bohemian waxwings breed in Alaska and northwest Canada, but are known for their tendency to move south in the winter when their winter diet of fruit becomes scarce. These irruptions can occur in huge numbers – thousands of birds, in some cases. Their name reflects their nomadic tendency (much like gypsies, or bohemians) and their unpredictable migration patterns. Mountain ash, juniper, cedar and holly berries are among their favorite foods, and typically they will stay in an area with an abundant food source until that food is stripped before moving on. Like their relatives, cedar waxwings, with whom they often flock, they are susceptible to alcohol intoxication, and even death, from eating fermented fruit. Someone I know who was unaware of this phenomenon was alarmed when she observed a number of waxwings lying on the ground outside her house, looking for all the world as if they were dead. To her great relief (and disbelief), an hour or two later the ground was bare, the inebriated birds having sobered up and departed.