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 Waxwing - Fact File

Bombycilla garrulus
Winter visitor in varying numbers (but usually scarce) mainly to eastern half of England and Scotland.
Occurs where berry bearing trees are found, including hedgerows, parks and gardens.

Unusual colouring and prominent crest are unique. In flight, it's triangular wing shape can be mistaken for same sized Starling

18 cm (7")


The vasts tracts of dense taiga forest stretching across northern Europe are the summer home of enigmatic waxwings. Highly attractive, these birds breed in old stunted conifers festooned with hanging witch-hair lichen. Both the dense forest interiors and the fringes edging peat swamps are favoured.

But in mid Winter, having switched to a diet of berries, the siken-crested wanderers either linger in their native forests or, if necessary, launch into eruptive movements seeking alternative supplies in temperate lands.

The chief winter food is the berries of the rowan (or mountain ash), an abundant tree in northern Europe where it is found both wild and lining the avenues in towns. However, the rowan crop varies widely from year to year. Warm conditions when rowans flower produces a heavy crop. In a poor year, the fruits are rapidly exhausted.

Warm spring weather in the arctic forests is also conducive to a high survival rate among nestling waxwings. The subsequent heavy berry crop provides ample food during the following winter. As a result the waxwing population builds up rapidly.

Since, however, a poor berry crop often follows a heavy one, it is in the autumn following a heavy crop that food is in the greatest demand. The birds must then migrate from the taiga or starve.

In some winters waxwings do indeed fail to find food. Many died on reaching this country one year following severe weather in northern Europe. When this happens the population crashes bringing invasions here to an end for several winters.

This winter a small-scale influx of waxwings reaches the East Coast of England from mid-December with flights of up to 40 appearing in Norfolk. There is no goal bar food for wandering waxwings. And that food may be anywhere within a very great area of country.

During one large-scale invasion (when well over a thousand assembled in Norfolk alone) remarkable distances were achieved by the berry seekers. Iceland, Portugal, Spain, southern Italy, Greece and Turkey all reported them.

Fearless and readily approached, waxwings will visit quite small gardens close to busy streets and are indifferent to passing traffic. In fact individuals often become traffic casualties when flying too low after gorging on fruits.

In the centre of Norwich I have watched them when winging over St Peter Mancroft Church heading for the cotoneasters below the City Hall. Earlham and College Road, Thorpe St Andrew and Mousehold Heath are other favoured haunts. Waxwings are highly conservative. Once you have discovered their favoured spots you may seek them with some confidence during future eruptions. Waxwings have remarkable appetites. A party of seven completely stripped a heavily laden cotoneaster covering a 100 sq ft of a cottage wall in Holt in only two days.

Later they turned their attention to an abandoned orchard greedily devouring the remaining apples. One waxwing consumed a complete one some two and a half inches in diameter in only four visits of from five to seven minutes each. I never tire of watching waxwings.

My diaries record one memorable occasion at Hickling where 20 birds were engaged in aerial flycatching. After executing rapid bat-like flights all returned to sun themselves-wings half-opened-in a leafless oak.

Two waxwings repeatedly performed a gift-passing ceremony, a choice berry constantly passing back and forth. This display was accompanied by drooping and quivering wings and raised and lowered crests.

Later the party, after a chorus of trills, swooped down to a hawthorn hedge rapidly swallowing berry after berry.

By Michael J. Seago

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Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge
© Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.