If you spot a flock of gleeful birds feasting on berries in your yard or neighborhood this winter, it is possible that you have come across a group of Bohemian waxwings. These sleek grayish birds are named for their nomadic nature, migrating in groups from their summer breeding grounds in the boreal forests of northern Canada, to their southernmost haunts in New England during the winter. The term “waxwing” derives from the spots of brilliant red on each wing that resemble sealing wax, plus the splotches of bright yellow on their wing feathers and their tail tip. Like their close relative the cedar waxwing, which resides in Vermont in the summer, the Bohemian waxwing also has a small crest on its head and a mischievous black “mask” around its eyes. The visual differences between the two species are subtle; Bohemians are stockier and grayer with a reddish underside to their tails, while cedar waxwings are slimmer with lighter coloration and a yellow tinted belly. However, the two species seldom overlap temporally in Vermont, and as a fallback they can be easily differentiated by their songs. The Bohemian waxwing sings a single high note that is slightly rough or trilled, while the cedar waxwing’s whistle is sweet and clear.
Bohemian waxwings are gregarious birds, travelling and working together to find food. They never truly become territorial like many other birds do, even during the breeding season, and instead adopt a cooperative attitude. When food sources north of the Canadian border become scarcer during the winter months, waxwings will venture into our Vermont forests and towns in large groups searching for their favorite winter foods: fruits and berries. You may be able to hear a flock belting out a chorus of high trills before you actually spot them. Once in sight, you will probably realize that trees or shrubs still clinging onto last summer’s fruits are not far away.
Bohemian waxwings will often feed on crab apples, mountain ash berries, rose hips, and juniper berries, and don’t seem to distinguish between wild and ornamental plants. During a feeding frenzy, they might be seen popping whole berries into their mouths, which they can do with great frequency. Because berries aren’t as high in nutrients as other food sources such as insects, a large quantity must be consumed to obtain the nutrition necessary for survival. In rare instances, waxwings have purportedly become intoxicated from gorging on fermented fruits, temporarily losing their ability to fly. But most of the time, these winter visitors are cheerfully flitting from branch to branch, surrounded by their peers and having a grand old feast.
While Bohemian waxwings are not of conservation concern, there is one sure way you can help bring their flocks closer to your backyard in future winters. Planting trees and shrubs that have fruits remaining on their branches in winter can greatly increase your chances that a group will swing by for a snack. Opting for native plant varieties can also increase the diversity of habitats you are providing for other wildlife. Before we know it, Bohemian waxwings will be heading north again for the spring, so keep your eyes and ears alert for this special winter wonder!