Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

It’s the Bohemian season

These regular visitors are among our more spectacular winter birds

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 2/7/19

It’s the soft trilling that typically gives away one of my favorite wanderers of the bird world. The aptly-named Bohemian Waxwings are highly social birds and they stay in touch as they feed or …

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It’s the Bohemian season

These regular visitors are among our more spectacular winter birds

Posted

It’s the soft trilling that typically gives away one of my favorite wanderers of the bird world. The aptly-named Bohemian Waxwings are highly social birds and they stay in touch as they feed or rest through their almost-constant chatter.

They’re fairly common this time of year in our area, usually hanging out in town where they spend their days feeding on the frozen remains of last summer’s fruits. Crab apples are their mainstay in our area come winter, although just about any wild or domestic fruit will do.

Their slightly smaller cousins, the Cedar Waxwings, are found here throughout the year, but the Bohemians breed to our north, in a range that extends from Hudson Bay through the Canadian Rockies and up to Alaska. They take up their winter residence in the North Country, usually starting in November, and can often be found here as late as May.

They spend their winter days here mostly just hanging around, in flocks that seem to range from a dozen to several dozen but can number in the hundreds in the best locations. They do virtually everything together, both feeding and resting as a flock.

Given their social nature, waxwings don’t exhibit the kind of territoriality that most other birds do, particularly during the breeding season. Because of that, waxwings don’t have a breeding song, which most birds deploy to keep rivals from their territory. And unlike many other species, waxwings don’t return to a favored breeding location year-after-year. Instead, like a number of boreal bird species, they set up house at various locations, often when and where food sources are abundant.

While Bohemian Waxwings are fruit eaters for much of the year, they eat mostly insects during the summer, and often feed like flycatchers— sitting on a perch and flying back and forth to grab flying insects as they pass by. The switch to insects is important for rearing their young, since the rapidly-growing nestlings need the rich source of nutrition provided by insects.

While the waxwings pair up during the breeding season, they seem to like to have a “significant other” during the winter months as well. Think of it as extended courtship, which is maintained by male displays and the sharing of food between the male and female.

Waxwings get their name from the special brightly-colored feathers on their wings, which appear almost wax-like. The Bohemians have more colorful and showy wing feathers, with a mix of yellow, red, and white, while the colorful feathers are limited to red on the Cedar Waxwing.

Waxwings are also distinctive for their almost-velvety appearance, their striking facemask, and prominent crest. They’re definitely worth taking the time to get a closer look. So the next time you hear a soft trilling above your head, stop and look up. You just might see a flock of these handsome wanderers.

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