ALWAYS IN SEASON: An intimate glimpse reveals the waxwing's real ID
The waxwings are another pair -- like the shrikes discussed last week or the redpolls that are so abundant here this winter. Waxwings, too, have been conspicuous. And, too, they present an identification challenge -- though happily, there are sev...
The waxwings are another pair -- like the shrikes discussed last week or the redpolls that are so abundant here this winter.
Waxwings, too, have been conspicuous.
And, too, they present an identification challenge -- though happily, there are several good ways to separate the two species. All require a good look, however. The rule is, never assume it's one or the other, at least not if you see the waxwing in winter.
Of course, you'll hardly ever see just one waxwing in winter.
The waxwings are social creatures, sometimes traveling in very large flocks. More frequently, though, they appear in groups of 20 to 50 birds.
Sometimes, both species occur in one flock. This is a bonanza for the birdwatcher, for it produces two birds for a list. Even better, it provides an opportunity to study the species at the same time, to take note of the differences and to learn to distinguish them readily.
The species are Bohemian waxwing, a winter visitor here, and cedar waxwing, a year-round resident and fairly common breeding species.
The waxwings are easily recognized. Both species are gray-brown in color, both have obvious crests, and both have patterned wings.
Here's how to tell them apart, starting with a glance, then with closer, more intimate observations.
At first glance
The cedar waxwing will appear darker, more brown than gray.
The Bohemian waxwing is pale, ranging from a light, rosy pink to a tone of gray.
Next, look at the wings:
The cedar waxwing has red spots at the feather tips. At rest, this creates the illusion of a continuous band midway down the wing. The same area in Bohemian waxwings appears white. Sometimes, the red is obvious, but it is less pronounced and less extensive than in cedar waxwings.
The Bohemian waxwing has a pattern of yellow and white down the length of the wing. This produces a kind of scalloped effect.
These patterns are the features that give these birds their common family name -- waxwing -- because someone imagined these spots of color resembled drops of wax. This is a striking image and a good memory device -- but it has nothing to do with science.
Often, the yellow in the wings of the Bohemian waxwing appears to continue down the tail. This has to do with how the bird holds its wings, though, and not with how its tail is patterned.
Still, it's a good field mark.
A closer look
This brings us to the intimate look.
Peek under the tail of any perching waxwing and its identity will be obvious immediately.
The under tail coverts, as these feathers are called, are different in the two species. In cedar waxwings, they are light yellow or cream-colored. In Bohemian waxwings, they are vivid chestnut.
So, get a load of the under tail coverts, and you'll have a certain identification.
As it happens, this is not hard to do. Waxwings are perching birds, so all you have to do is look up at a flock of them and pick out one species from the other.
The waxwings share lifestyles, too, even though they occupy different territory.
The Bohemian waxwing is a northern bird that appears here only in winter. It's a circumpolar bird, breeding in the sub-Arctic around the world.
Bohemian waxwings explode southward in some years, and they are a fixture of European winter folklore. They are peripatetic birds -- enacting the stereotype that gives them their common name -- and move rapidly from one food source to another.
As it happens, food sources have become more abundant in Great Plains cities, where plantings of crabapple and mountain ash trees produce fruit that clings to the tree through the winter, offering the waxwings a kind of natural smorgasbord.
The cedar waxwing occurs only in North America. They are fairly common breeding birds in our area, but they are much less obvious in summer than in winter. That's because the large winter flocks break up, and pairs or small groups establish nesting territories. Often, the birds choose trees at the edge of a lake, a clearing or a shelterbelt. There, they behave like flycatchers, darting out from exposed perches to take insects on the wing -- a notable contrast to their fruit-based winter diet.
Jacobs is editor and publisher of the Herald. Reach him at (701) 780-1103; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1103; or send email to email@example.com .