In a corner of our neighbour’s back yard, behind their garage and feet from the standard chain-link fences installed by the oil companies who originally planted our houses here in the 1970’s, hunkers a stunted but stalwart crab-apple tree. Its delicate springtime blossoms and bitter fall fruit go mostly unnoticed, almost hidden as it is among the utilitarian structures of adjoining neighbours’ storage sheds. I can see it though, and I watch it closely at certain times of the year since I know it is a favourite of the properly nomadic, bohemian waxwing.
I usually hear them first, their amicable and indeed garulus gabble precedes the synchronized flight of the flock, gathering for their communal winter foraging in November or returning to town in April to clean out the fruit before setting up their nests high in the pines, deep in the boreal forest.
I’ve seen their call described as abrasive, and indeed some of the audio files I came across researching this article are true to that descriptor. However, even close up I find the sound of a flock whirring through the air or busily feeding on mountain ash or my neighbour’s crab-apple tree, soft and pleasant, comforting even, like the mellow slide and sloosh of a forest stream over smoothed rocks.
With the grace and rarity of Japanese dragon kites, the undulating flight of an ear-full or museum of waxwings (who decided on and who agreed that these would be the collective terms for waxwings, I do not know) fleetingly enliven the early spring and late fall skies and draw me outdoors to clamber through new or rotting snow to visit my neighbour’s crab-apple tree.
Although watchful, with confidence or bravado, these glossily-adorned and elegant beauties have often allowed me to come to within a few metres of them as they gorge and quarrel, and often share the rotting fruit.
Waxwings get their name from the elongated yellow beads that extend from their secondary feathers, but their whole sleek bodies seem expertly crafted from softened wax, or silken fabric, fresh dyed with rich spices and woven more sturdily at wing- and tail-tips; the saffron yellow and Syrian Rue red procured from the masters. Their generic name, Bombycilla, comes from ‘silky tails’, the term directly used for their name in some eastern European languages.
Adroitly darting about on tapered wings, their limber bodies nimbly bending and twisting, keenly intent on nourishment, I am mesmerized by the intensity of exotic colour flashing through the pale winter grays, and entertained by their determination and single-mindedness.
A metre of snow may have covered a winter’s accumulation of dropped fruit, but anything visible is not wasted, the fresh layer easily mined.
Although possibly declining, the bohemian waxwing is numerous and has such a broad range (circumpolar in the Northern Hemisphere) it is considered a “species of least concern” by the IUCN Red List. See the IUCN listing for Bombycilla garrulus and Environment Canada species listing.
Wonders of the Waxwings: Cedar and Bohemian Waxwings by Robin Robinson
Wobbling Waxwings by Next Door Nature