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ALWAYS IN SEASON: Peripatetic waxwings make an appearance in Grand Forks

Illustration by Mike Jacobs

The waxwings are among those wanderers that are here in big numbers some years and not at all in others.

This year they mostly haven’t shown up.

There are two species, Bohemian and cedar waxwings.

The past week has brought a couple of reports of cedar waxwings; Bohemian waxwings have been notably absent.

The two species look very much alike. They are robin-sized, gray-brown birds with smooth plumage, masked faces and prominent crests.

Both species appear smooth. In German, waxwings are called “silky tails.”

And both are often described as sleek — though perched birds sometimes hunch their backs. In this posture, they seem more stout than sleek.

The best way to tell them apart, really, is to look under the tail. The Bohemian waxwing has rust-colored feathers there. The cedar waxwing’s under-tail coverts — as these feathers are called — are whitish or pale yellow.

There’s a small difference in the wings, as well. Bohemian waxwings have yellow, white and red there, while cedar waxwings have only red.

Then in the face, cedar waxwings have a more prominent white patch below the black mask and behind the bill. Plus, they have a tiny stripe of white above the mask where the Bohemian waxwing does not.

On the back, the cedar waxwing often shows white between the folded wings, while the Bohemian waxwing is dark.

Finally, the Bohemian waxwing is a bit larger, about an inch longer from bill to tail and 2 inches wider from wing tip to wing tip.

But these are subtle clues that are hard to see, easy to overlook and not always reliable.

Time of year is a clue to identification, too.

You can pretty well eliminate Bohemian waxwings in summer. They are very unlikely here.

Cedar waxwings, however, are common nesters in our area, especially in semi-open areas near water. At my place, cedar waxwings favor an elm tree near a ditch. This provides good perches for their forays to catch flying insects.

In winter, my experience is that Bohemian waxwings are more common, but cedar waxwings are also around.

For winter waxwings, therefore, you have to resort to the under tail inspection.

The birds are well named from several points of view.

Most obviously, the wings do have a waxy look. In each species, there is a patch of red that rather resembles a drop of wax.

Cedar waxwings do have a preference for cedar trees and their berries, especially in winter. This they share with Bohemian waxwings, however.

The two species also share the behavior that brought the Bohemian waxwing its common name. They are peripatetic, moving from place to place, probably in search of adequate and appropriate food.

In winter, this means hanging fruit.

Waxwings like cedar berries, and they often show up in the Eastern red cedar growing in my yard. They also like Rocky Mountain juniper, a fairly common species in the Badlands of western North Dakota.

Neither of these plants is common in the Red River Valley, but that doesn’t discourage the waxwings. They enjoy ornamental fruit, readily taking mountain ash and crab apples.

The Norwegian forebears of so many Red River Valley residents would have been familiar with Bohemian waxwings. This is a holarctic species, meaning that they occur across the higher latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere.

It’s an irruptive species, sometimes appearing in large numbers in central Europe, just as it does in our area. These places are at about the same latitude. Grand Forks, Paris, Munich and Prague are all at about 48 degrees north latitude. So is southern Ukraine.

The cedar waxwing is a strictly American species, occurring across North America as far north as the tree line and as far south as the Isthmus of Panama.

Lewis and Clark recognized the cedar waxwing, which showed up at their winter quarters at Fort Mandan, located near present Washburn, N.D. The explorers called them “cedar birds.”

Jacobs is publisher of the Herald. Reach him at (701) 780-1103; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1103; or send email to