Winter visitor. Waxwings are winter visitors to Britain, migrating here from their breeding grounds in the boreal forest belt that stretches from Scandinavia, through Russia and across parts of North America. The numbers that reach the UK depend on the availability of berries on the Continent. In years where berry-crops fail, birds are forced to migrate greater distances in search of food, often reaching our shores en masse.

Irruptions. Given that the winter movements of waxwings are dependent on the amount of food available on the continent, the UK can receive anything from a few dozen birds to as many as 12,000 each year. Most years, Britain hosts at least a few birds; though, during irruption years, many more can arrive on our shores. Eastern and northern Britain tend to receive the highest number of waxwings during the winter due to their proximity to the North Sea crossing points.

Mountain Ash connoisseurs. Experts believe Rowan (aka Mountain Ash) to be the favoured food of waxings; though they regularly feast on other native and non-native Sorbus berries in the UK. Among these: hawthorn, cotoneaster and dog rose. With Spindle and Whitebeam are also taken with gusto. Where berries are in short supply, waxwings can often be drawn to an area with apples, either left as windfall or deliberately placed.

Feeding habits. Fruiting plants are incredibly important for waxwings in the winter as they typically eat 800-1000 berries a day, roughly twice their body weight. This changes during the breeding season, however, when the species feeds mainly on midges, mosquitoes and other small insects. It is therefore not unusual to see any waxwings remaining in Britain during the spring feasting on insects.

Selfless Symbolism. Spiritualists believe waxwings to be a symbol of selfless generosity. The symbolism of the waxwing totem is believed to teach selflessness and the practice of giving to others for their benefit, and not your own. Waxwings are traditionally associated with the politeness you should have when you give away to others the thing you have craved for or cherished for so long.

Selfish, not selfless. It is believed that the association of waxwings with selflessness and giving stems from their courtship habits. When a male waxwing sets out in search of a mate, it often carries a berry – passed to a female bird in an effort to impress her. The female waxwing then takes the berry and returns it to the male, with the gifting ritual repeated many times until, eventually, mating takes place. While some may view this as a sign of selflessness, in reality, the male instigates this ritual in order to spread his own genes; thus the process, while touching, is actually rather selfish.

Waxwing separation. Two species of waxwing have occurred in Britain: the commoner Bohemian Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) and much scarcer Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum). Separation between the two can often be difficult; though the colour of the bird provides a good indicator. A Bohemian Waxwing has a grey chest and belly while a Cedar Waxwing has a brown chest with a yellow belly. Additionally, if the birds undertail is a brownish orange, it’s a Bohemian Waxwing. If the undertail is white, it’s a Cedar Waxwing.

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Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)

A rare repeat performance. Having visited our shores during winter, individual waxwings seldom return to Britain – demonstrated by the incredibly low number of successful ringing recoveries. That said, in 2010, one particular bird bucked this trend, returning to the village of Kintore, in Aberdeenshire, almost a year to the day it had first been ringed by the Grampian Ringing Group. This represented only the third confirmed record of a waxwing returning to the UK in a subsequent winter from over 4,500 ringed birds successfully banded.

Global Abundance. While we Brits tend to think of waxwings as a seasonal scarcity, they are actually rather abundant. The global population of waxwings has been estimated at more than three million birds, and the breeding range covers about 12.8 million km2. Although this species’ population, as of 2013, appears to be declining, the decrease is not rapid nor large enough to trigger a change to their vulnerability criteria. The waxwing is classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as being of ‘least concern’.


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Written by James Common

Naturalist and nature writer from North-East England, forever learning. Common By Nature is maintained as an outlet for opinion and personal musings associated with the natural world, and as a journal detailing my exploits in the great outdoors. Enjoy!

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