Named for the red, wax-like tips on their secondaries as well as their wandering ways, Bohemian Waxwings occasionally appear well south of their normal range in winter. Bohemian Waxwings are frequently seen in large flocks of hundred or even thousands of birds, including with their relative the Cedar Waxwing.
Bohemian Waxwings depend heavily on sweet fruits in their diet, and they travel widely to find and take advantage of fruiting trees and shrubs. Their breeding range and even the breeding season varies somewhat from year to year as they seek their favored food
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Description of the Bohemian Waxwing
The Bohemian Waxwing is a sleek, generally gray bird. It is unusual in that it does not maintain a protected breeding territory. The species also does not have a true song, perhaps because the male does not have to defend a specific territory. Length: 8 in. Wingspan: 14 in.
Sexes very similar.
- Smaller black chin patch.
- Shorter and fewer waxy tips on feathers.
Seasonal change in appearance
Similar to adults, but grayer overall and showing a mottled breast.
Boreal forest during the breeding season, and in towns or near berry producing trees during the winter.
Consumes insects in the summer, and berries in the fall and winter.
During winter (the season in which most people are able to see them) Bohemian Waxwings are always in flocks, sometimes along with Cedar Waxwings, frequenting berry producing trees.
Breeds in boreal Canada and Alaska. Winters throughout southern Canada and the northern U.S., with occasional winter appearances farther south. Its population is not easily monitored given its remote northern breeding range.
Bent Life History
Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Bohemian Waxwing.
Their “Bohemian” lifestyle means they are widely variable in number from year to year in any given part of their winter range.
A series of high-pitched notes makes up the song, but the more commonly heard call is a buzzy rattle or trill.
The more widespread Cedar Waxwing has pale undertail coverts and lacks white patches in the wings.
An open cup of twigs, moss, and grasses, placed on a horizontal limb 5-20 feet up.
Number: Usually 5.
Color: Pale blue with sparse markings.
Incubation and fledging:
- Young hatch at about 13-14 days.
- Young fledge at about 15-17 days, though continuing to associate with parents for some time.
Bent Life History of the Bohemian Waxwing
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Bohemian Waxwing – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
BOMBYCILLA GARRULUS PALLIDICEPS Reichenow
The Bohemian waxwing is an elegant bird, a well-dressed gentleman in feathers, a Beau Brummel among birds. He is not so gaudily dressed in gay colors as many other birds are, but his sleek and silky plumage, in softly blended, harmonious shades of modest grays and browns, clothes his shapely form in a most pleasing combination of colors; and the band of white across the wings, the yellow-tipped tail, the chestnut under tail coverts, the black chin, and the red wax tips rather accent than spoil the harmony of the whole; and, above all, the jaunty crest gives the final touch of aristocracy, lie is a gentleman in appearance and a courteous gentleman in behavior, as all who have seen him in association with his fellows, or with other species, will attest.
To most of us, these Bohemians are birds of mystery; we never know when or where we may see these roving bands of gypsies. They come and they go, we know not whence or whither, in the never-ending search for a bounteous food supply on which to gorge themselves. On infrequent occasions, far too infrequent in New England, from the vast timbered wilderness of northern Canada small groups, or immense flocks, of these fascinating and erratic wanderers swoop down upon us in winter in the Northern States, and more regularly in the Rocky Mountain regions. According to Dr. Cones (1874), “Prof. Baird mentions that Mr. Drexier saw ‘millions’ on Powder River, in flocks ‘rivaling in extent those of the wild Pigeon. ~ Whence come these vast hordes? It is only within comparatively recent years that a few small breeding colonies have been discovered in different parts of northern Canada. But the total of all these colonies will not begin to account for the enormous numbers of these waxwings that sometimes flock into the States in winter. There must be many more of these, or larger, colonies scattered through the broad expanse of coniferous forests, dotted with muskegs, that extend from Hudson Bay almost to the Pacific slope, most of which region still remains unexplored. A 30-mile trip that I made into the wilderness north of Prince Albert gave me a glimpse of what this country must be like. Perhaps the opening of the Alcan Highway may throw some light on the subject.
Sir John Richardson (Swainson and Richardson, 1831) writes:
This elegant bird has only lately been detected in America, having been discovered, in the spring of 1826, near the sources of the Athabasca, or Elk river, by Mr. Druminond, and by myself the Caine season at Great Bear Lake, in latitiide 050. * * * ~~ appears in flocks at Great Bear Lake about the 24th of May, when the spring thaw has exposed the berries of the alpine arbutus, marsh vacciniurn, &c., that have been frozen and covered during the winter. It stays only for a few days, and none of the Indians of that quarter with whom I conversed bad seen its nests. ~ * * I observed a large flock, consisting of at least three or four hundred individuals, on the banks of the Saskatchewan, at Carlton House, early in May, 1827. They alighted in a grove of poplars, settling all in one or two trees, and making a loud twittering noise. They stayed only about an hour in the morning, and were too shy to allow me to approach within gunshot.
This species is circumpolar in its distribution, and our bird was, for a long time, supposed to be idcntical with the European bird, but it has since been shown to be subspecifically distinct from the latter, B. g. garrulus, as well as from a closely related Asiatic race, B. g. centralasiae. Dr. Harry C. Oberholser (1917) has pointed out the differences between the forms. He says that our bird is similar to the Asiatic bird, “but decidely more grayish (less cinnamomeous) both above and below”. And he adds: “The North American representatives of this species constitute a ~vell-marked and readily recognizable subspecies which differs from Bomb ycilla garrida garrula in its paler, very much more grayish (less vinaceous or cinnamomeous), coloration both above and below.”
The type race has occurred as a straggler in Greenland.
The 1931 Check-list implies that the Bohemian waxwing nests wholly north of the United States, but Dr. Walter P. Taylor (1918) has published several records that indicate that it “occurs, probably rarely, as a breeding bird within our borders in the coniferous forests of the northern Rocky Mountain region, in a district embracing northwestern Montana, northern Idaho, and northern Washington.”
Harry S. Swarth (1922) found a colony of these waxwings breeding in the lowlands near the upper part of the Stikine River, in northern British Columbia. Just why they were restricted to this limited area, when conditions were apparently equally favorable farther down the river, was not apparent. The terrace or plateau where he found them “extends westward a mile or more, is quite level, and but sparsely covered with forest growth. A year or more before our visit it had been swept by fire and a large part of the timber destroyed. As we saw the place there was very little underbrush of any sort, a great many dead trees, mostly pines with some poplars, and a scattering growth of live trees that had escaped destruction. The conifers were the lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta), and were all small trees.”
Fifty miles or so down the river, at Doch-da-on Creek, he found the waxwings breeding under slightly different conditions. “This tract was composed mainly of balsam firs of rather large size, with an admixture of cottonwoods and poplars, and with but little underbrush.” These woods, though fairly open, were much denser than those mentioned above.
Courtship: The following short statement by Mr. Swarth (1922) is all that I can find on this subject: “On one occasion one of a pair of waxwings, presumably the male, was seen strutting about and exhibiting his beauties to his mate. Considering that the two sexes are alike in every respect, it seemed rather a superfluous performance, but at any rate the one bird was hopping excitedly about from branch to branch, while the other sat still and looked on. The active performer kept the tail partly spread, wings drooping, and crest raised, and the whole body was held stiffly upright. After several minutes the other seemed to tire of the performance and flew away, followed at once by its mate.”
Nesting: Many years ago, Professor Baird (1865) made the following announcement as to our first knowledge of the nesting habits of this species:
For many years authentic eggs of the Bohemian Chatterer were greatly sought after, but it was not until 1856 that they were brought to the notice of the scientific world, when the late Mr. H. Wolley discovered them In Lapland. Early duplicates from his collection were sold at five guineas each, and although a good many have since been obtained, they are yet considered as great prizes. A nest, with its eggs, of those collected by Mr. Wolicy, has been presented to the [Smithsonian] Institution by Mr. Alfred Newton. The only Instances on record of their discovery in America are of a nest and one egg by Mr. Kennlcott, on the Yukon, in 1861, and a nest and single egg on the Anderson River, by Mr. MacFarinne, both of which, with the female parents, are in the possession of the Institution.
Mr. Swarth (1922),in his excellent account of the breeding colony on the upper Stikine, mentions several other breeding stations that have been discovered since the above-mentioned early records and prior to his own discovery, and gives much interesting information about other phases of the life history of these little-known birds, which will be taken up later. But first I want to include some contributed notes on more recent nestings in some other localities.
Frank L. Farley writes to me: “Bohelnian waxwings are apparently as erratic in their selection of nesting territory as they are in their annual wanderings to and from their summer homes. During my early visits to the muskeg country, lying between the Athabaska and the Pembina Rivers, about 100 miles northwest of Edmonton, Alberta, I was not successful in locating nesting pairs, although occasional birds were seen, and the country seemed suitable for such purposes. On such occasions the birds all disappeared before our departure for home. When I visited the region in May 1938, waxwings appeared daily in fair numbers, and several pairs were found nesting toward the end of the month about our camp. On May 28 two nests were located in tall jack pines. One of these contained four and the other six eggs. The nesting trees were about 100 feet apart and were close to an old logging trail that traverses the country between the two rivers. The nests were built on horizontal branches close to the main trunk and about 35 feet from the ground. The nests were made of dry pine and tamarack twigs, intermixed with coarse grasses and tree mosses. The lining is of finer grass, bits of soft black moss, and a fluffy white down, the product of some native plant. The exterior is more or less covered with moss and lichens. The diameter outside is 6 inches and the depth 4 inches. The cup is nearly 8 inches deep and the same in width.”
A. D. Henderson contributes the following account: “This beautiful bird is a rather common breeder in the muskeg and sand-hill country north of Fort Assiniboine, with its growth of spruce, tamarack, and pines, and its abundant crop of blueberries, cranberries, and kinnikinnick berries. It nests in spruce and tamarack trees in the muskegs, usually at low elevations. It also nests in pines growing on the high ground. The nests are placed near the top of the tall, slim pines and are so difficult to secure that it is necessary quite often to lash two or more pines together, or pull the tree with the nest into a larger pine nearby. Three nests taken in pines were at heights of 40, 50, and 50 feet. The highest nest of 11 taken in muskegs was 18 feet up and the lowest 4 feet; the rest ranged from 8 to 16 feet up. The birds also nest in the wide-branching pines growing in open situations, and in this case the nests are saddled on the horizontal limbs well out from the trunk.
“The nests are rather flat, and made on the outside of tamarack or spruce twigs, grass, usnea moss, and cocoons; they are lined with a little fine grass, usnea moss, cocoons, and plant cotton, or with tamarack leaves, feathers, or pine needles; some of this lining is, of course, not present in every nest.
“Some pairs breed by themselves, but quite often two or more nests are in the same muskeg at no great distance from each other. On one trip to the muskegs, the birds were entirely absent from their usual haunts. I attribute this to lack of the usual crop of berries, the blossoms evidently being caught in a hard frost the previous season. These birds are also great flycatchers, and, in another season which was very cold and windy and little insect life available, they were not breeding at the usual time and only one nest was found. Few nests are found as compared with the numbers of birds present. They do not breed in the poplar woods around Belvedere.”
Wilson C. Hanna has sent me the data for two sets of eggs of the Bohemian waxwing, taken by him at Atlin Lake, British Columbia, on July 14, 1931. Both nests were in balsam firs, 14 feet above the ground; one was at a fork in the main trunk of a small fir, and the other was on a downward-sloping limb against the trunk. The materials used in the construction of the nests were not different from those mentioned above. The larger nest measured 6 by 7 inches in outside diameter by 2.7 inches in depth; the inner cavity was 3.25 inches in diameter and 1.5 inches deep. (P1. 7.)
Mr. Swarth’s (1922) eight Telegraph Creek nests were all in lodgepole pines; one nest was 25 feet, one 10, and one 15 feet from the ground; the others were only 6 or 7 feet up. All the nests but one were on small limbs against the trunk; this nest, found June 24, “was in a lodgepole pine of larger size than most in this locality, in the fork of one of the larger branches, about three feet from the trunk. Both birds were building here at 1 p. m. At 4 p. m. both birds were seen hard at work carrying the nest material elsewhere. When we ceased watching there was very little of the nest left. On July 5 we happened to pass this place and were surprised to see the nest intact and a bird upon it. It yielded a set of five eggs.” Of the first nest he says: “Found June 19, nest just begun; June 21, nest completed; June 22, contained one egg; June 24, 3 eggs; June 25, 4 eggs; June 26, five eggs, set taken.” Of the nests in general, he says; The building material was always the same, an outer structure of dead twigs. lending support to a mass of black moss and white plant fiber. Dry grass was used as a lining sometimes but not always. The black moss was the one material that was used in the greatest amount, and it appears in all but one of the nests. This moss grows abundantly on the conifers of the region, depending from the branches in great masses, like coarse hair. The white plant fiber that is also so conspicuous in the nests is from the seed pod of the prevIous year’s dead “fireweed” (Epi~obium angust~foZium).
There was one additional feature in which the nests were all alike, something that could not be preserved. Invariably there was a mass of stuff depending six or eight inches below the nest proper, so loosely attached as to seem on the verge of dropping away. This stuff was mostly the moss and the white plant fiber; usually additional tufts of these materials were adhering to nearby branches.
Of the two nests found at Doch-da-on Creek, 50 miles down the rlver, he says: “Each was near the top of a fir, about twenty-five feet from the ground, supported upon a branch and by surrounding twigs, and close to the trunk. On July 15 one of these nests was taken, together with a set of three eggs. The other contained two eggs, and was left undisturbed. No more eggs were laid in this nest, the female being still incubating the two eggs some days later.”
Several other accounts of the nesting of the Bohemian waxwing have been published, but they are not sufficiently different from some of those mentioned above to warrant quoting them here. Some of them are quoted in Mr. Swarth’s (1922) paper, to which the reader is referred.
Eggs: Mr. Swarth (1922) found one of these waxwings incubating on two eggs for “some days,” but usually the set consists of four to six. The eggs are almost exactly like those of the cedar waxwing but decidedly larger. Mr. Swarth describes his eggs as follows: “In color, three of the sets are much alike, a pale glaucous blue, close to Ridgway’s ‘pale dull glaucous-blue,’ but more washed out. This ground color is marked rather profusely with blackish dots and with a few fine, irregular lines, the dots mostly quite small and occurring over nearly the entire egg, though less numerously at the smaller end than elsewhere. There are also obscure underlying spots of bluish, but faintly seen. The fourth set (No. 1821) is more olivaceous, the ground color close to Ridgway’s ‘mineral gray.’ The spots are fewer in number than in the other sets, larger, and more sharply defined.”
The measurements of ~0 eggs average 24.6 by 17.4 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 27.5 by 19.2, 27.3 by 19.4, 21.5 by 17.7, and 22.9 by 15.2 millimeters.
Young: Apparently no one who has found a nest of the Bohemian waxwing has been willing to allow the eggs to hatch; hence we know nothing about the period of incubation or about the development and care of the young. The eggs were considered worth more than the information. The only hint we have as to the altricial period is that Mr. Swarth found five young in a nest on June 24, which he thought were not more than two or three days old; on July 5, 11 days later, these young birds fluttered from the nest when disturbed; they might not have left the nest voluntarily for two or three days.
Plumages: Mr. Swartli (1922) shows a colored plate of the young birds, drawn by Maj. Allan Brooks, which gives a better idea of them than any description; the brood consisted of four males and one female. He gives the following interesting description of them:
These young waxwings presented a most striking appearance in life, for to my surprise they exhibited all the characteristic markings of the adult. Not only that, but the yellow tip to the tail was much brighter, more of an orange yellow, than it is in any of the old birds. The wax tips to the secondaries were present In each of the four males but not in the female. Two of the birds had four such tips, one had five, and one had seven, as many as are seen in any of the adults. These wax tips are as large as in many old birds. * * * The four young males are very much alike in color and markings, the only differences in appearance being those arising from the slight difference In stage of development. The marginal primary markings are present, sharply defined, and in each case bright yellow. In many adults these markings are white. In the young males the terminal tail band Is orange-buff, the primary tips, light orange-yellow. In the brightest ndult at hand the tail band is light cadmium, the primary tips, lemon chrome. In the young female the tail band Is somewhat paler than in the males, though still more orange than In any adult. The primary tips are hut slightly tinged with yellow.
A still more remarkable feature in the young males is the fact that in each one the rectrices are distinctly tipped with red. These red tips are not fully developed sealing-waxilke scales such as are on the secondaries, but are produced by red coloration of the terminal portion (4 or 5 mm. in length) of the feather shaft of the rectrix. * * * While the young birds possess all the markings of the adults, they are appreciably different in general body color. They have a somewhat streaked appearance. though not as much so as in the young cedar waxwing; the whole body is of a duller, darker gray than in the adult, and the young bird has none of the vinous coloring about the head that Is seen in the adult The crest is present but only slightly developed. The young has a dull black line from the nostril to the eye and posteriorly on the head, in resemblance to that on the adult, but In our specimens of young there Is just an indication of the black throat This may he due to the fact that in these birds the feathers of the chin and upper throat are but partly developed.
In full juvenal plumage, according to Ridgway (1904), the malar region, chin, and throat are dull white, the chin is margined on each side by a dusky streak, and the under tail coverts are vinaceous cinnamon; and Dwight’s (1900) description is substantially the same. The latter says that the first winter plumage is acquired by a partial postiuvenal molt, “which involves the body plumage and wing coverts, but not the remiges nor rectrices.” He describes it as “everywhere rich drab, grayer below and on rump, fawn-color about the head. A large black chin patch, the black extending to lores and forehead and bordered everywhere by rich walnut-brown.”
There seems to be no prenuptial molt in the Bohemian waxwing. One-year-old birds and adults have a complete postnuptial molt, either very late in summer (last of August) or in fall; E. S. Cameron (1908) says this occurs in October; and Witherby’s Handbook (1919) says October to November. Dwight (1900) says that young birds become indistinguishable from adults after their first postnuptial molt, adults being somewhat grayer than first-winter birds, with more extensive white markings in the wings and brighter yellow tail band and primary tips.
Except for the smaller and duller black throat, there seem to be no constant sexual differences in plumage, but there is much individual variation in both sexes. The coloration of the female is said to be duller than that of the male, but the most brightly colored bird in the series examined by Mr. Swarth (1922) is a female. “In size (but not in number) of wax wing tips, in ‘return margins’ of primaries, in yellow on primaries, and in size of white spots on secondaries, it is superior to any of the males. In this bird the wax secondary tips are 7 mm. in length, a size attained by only one or two males.” The female parent of the brood of young is a highly plumaged bird. “It has six secondaries of one wing, five of the other, with wax tips, the primary margins are bright yellow, the tail is broadly tipped with yellow, and there is a faint suggestion of red in one or two of the tail feathers.”
The presence of wax tips, or their number, did not seem to be dependent on age, sex, or season; they were almost evenly divided between the sexes; out of 45 specimens examined, just 1 (a female) had no trace of a wax tip; in a series of 22 males, 2 had 3 tips, 8 had 6, and 1 had 7 tips, the others being intermediate in this respect; in a series of 16 females, 1 had no tips, 1 had traces of 2, 2 had 3 tips, 7 had 6, and 1 had 7 tips, the others being intermediate.
Food: On its northern breeding grounds, in summer, the Bohemian waxwing is largely insectivorous, though even there its presence seems to be governed to some extent by the available supply of berries. It has sometimes been referred to as an expert flycatcher; it must be very smart at this, for it has been known to capture such swift and strong fliers as dragonflies. Mr. Swarth (1922) writes:
Waiwings were seen feeding on Insects and also on berries and other vegetable matter. About Telegraph Creek, the first week In June, they were usually seen perched on bare branches and making short sallies after flying insects in true flycatcher style. Early in July a berry-bearing sbrnb (Shepheraja canadensis) of general distribution in tbe region came into hearing, and the waxwings, as well as otber species of birds, fed upon the berries of this plant to a great extent. The young waxwings we took from tbe nest had also been fed upon these same berries.
Dr. Thomas S. Roberts (1932) says: “The Bohemian Waxwing is fond of tree sap, especially that of the sugar maple, and when the sap begins to run in early spring, a leaking tree-trunk will attract a whole flock. * * With the warm days of early spring, it becomes a ‘flycatcher’ and may be seen sallying out from the tree-tops in pursuit of the tiny flies and beetles that fill the upper air even before the snow and ice have disappeared. The stomach at such times will be found packed with many hundreds of these minute insects.” He gives a long list of berries and fruits eaten, and adds that, in times of stress, it will feed on “rotten apples and cranberries gleaned from garbage cans and dumping places in the rear of residences and stores.”
Mr. Farley sends me the following note: “I am told by trappers in the mountains that, in summer, these birds begin to eat the wild raspberries just as soon as they show any signs of ripening, and from that time on, until the berries fall oil, the bills and the faces of the birds are smeared with the red juices. During their stay in central Alberta, beginning late in October, their chief food in the country consists of chokecherries, hawthorn, and rose hips, all of which remain on the trees late. As long as these fruits can be had the birds will remain. In the towns and cities, where the shrub Cotoneaster is now grown commonly, the Bohemians feed on the blue berries produced on this bush and prefer them to any other food. When feeding on these, their faces and bills are always colored by the blue juices.~~ Although there is a bug list of berries and fruits on which these waxwings feed, the most important two are the berries of the mountainash and those of the cedars or junipers; at least these are the foods most often mentioned, and thcy are probably decided favorites. The mountain-ash berries are so popular with these birds that they will flock to a tree in fruit day after day until it is entirely stripped of its berries and until all those that have fallen to the ground have been picked up. A mountain-ash tree in fruit is sure to attract all the waxwings in the vicinity, provided it has not been stripped of its fruit by starlings, robins, or other birds before the xvaxwings arrive, for it is one of the most popular of berry-bearing trees or shrubs.
The cedars are more widely distributed and there are many more of them; they provide an abundant food supply for the waxwings. Mr. Cameron (1908) says that, in Montana in winter, these waxwings subsist “entirely on cedar berries, which have a sweet taste and tinge the excrement of the birds red, so that familiar roosting places in the high pines are infallibly marked by the red-stained snow beneath.”
Other vegetable foods of the Bohemian waxwing include highbush cranberries, buffaloberries, bearberries, blueberries, wolfberries, snowberries, hackberries, barberries, and the berries of the black alder, American holly, madrona, buckthorn, ivy, asparagus, smilax, kinnikinnick, bittersweet vine, mistletoe, peppertree, dogwood, sumac, laurel, woodbine and the matrimony vine, and doubtless other berries. They also eat frozen apples that hang on the trees or fall to the ground, Russian olives and wild olives, rose hips, wild grapes, persimmons, and figs. They will come to the feeding stations for raisins, dried currants, or minced prunes, and probably for other kinds of dried fruits or berries. They are said to eat the buds of poplars and the seeds of boxelder, black birch, locust, and hollyhock.
Bohemian waxwings are voracious, almost gluttonous feeders; they gorge themselves with all the food their crops will hold, then fly down and take a drink of water or snow and return to the feast; when filled to capacity they fly up into a tree and sit quietly to digest their food, so as to be ready to fly down and eat more. They swoop down in flocks onto the berry-bearing trees or shrubs and keep almost constantly at it until the supply is exhausted.
Dr. Harrison F. Lewis has sent me the following note on a flock that he watched near Quebec City, on February 22, 1920: “At this point two fields were partly separated by a rugged row of thorn bushes (Crataegus) of considerable size, on which hung much frozen fruit. Among these bushes and rising high above them stood three or four tall spruce trees. Some of the waxwings were in the spruces, some were in the bushes, and some were on the wind-packed snow beneath. There was much activity, and birds were continually flying back and forth between trees, bushes, and snow. I was able to reach a position among the bushes, at the foot of one of the spruce trees, without disturbing the flock much. I could then see plainly that the waxwings were feeding on the frozen fruit of the thorn bushes, for they would come unconcernedly to within about two rods of me while they were feeding. They swallowed the fruits whole but did so with great difficulty. It seemed as if a bird made five or six unsuccessful attempts to swallo~v a fruit for every one successful attempt. After failing in one or two attempts to swallow a particular fruit, a bird would drop it and try another, then perhaps drop that and try a third one, and so on. The birds working in the bushes apparently dropped most of the fruit which they pulled from the twigs, but these fallen fruits were immediately mouthed over and some of them finally swallowed by the birds on the surface of the snow. Sometimes the birds, with fruit in their mouths, flew up into the spruces to swallow what they had secured.”
Behavior: The Bohemian waxwing is a well-behaved bird with a gentle and inoffensive disposition, sociable and friendly among its fellows and not hostile toward other species, even in competition for food. Waxwings are often vigorously attacked by robins that try to drive them from the berry-bearing bushes, where they are peacefully feeding, but the waxwings do not retaliate; the angry attacks by the hostile robins only cause them to step quietly aside and await their turn. Audubon (1842) published an interesting account, given to him by Thomas MeCulloch, which illustrates the devotion of one of these birds to its wounded companion; it returned again and again to its fallen friend, uttering notes of alarm and warning, and flying against it in its efforts to urge it to escape from danger, until it paid with its life for its friendly solicitude.
It is very tame and confiding in the presence of human beings, being quite unsuspicious and easily approached, as illustrated by the following observation by Thomas D. Burleigh (1930)
The birds on the University campus have gradually Increased until now there are fully eight hundred of them there; they feed on the ground or in the thickets where the bushes are full of berries, and are remarkably tame, allowing anyone to walk up within a foot of them; two lit on me as I stood watching them, one on my shoulder and one on the top of my head, the latter bird remaining there for several minutes; a few minutes later, I held out my hand full of berries and one bird actually lit on my arm and standing on the sleeve of my mackinaw ate the berries without paying the slightest attention to me.
The Bohemian waxwing shows its sociability by its pronounced flocking habits; even on its breeding grounds it is often seen moving about in flocks, and it seems to prefer to nest in communities. S. F. Rathbun has contributed the following notes on flock behavior:
“December 22, 1919. This morning we again heard these waxwings and found them in the same locality where we had seen flocks on two other occasions. The flock was a large one, a majority of the birds being perched in or near the top of a large maple tree; all were headed directly into the wind, which seems to be customary when any appreciable wind is blowing; individuals were constantly dropping down to feed on the berries in some adjacent mountain-ash trees. As usual, there was a constant movement in the flock, birds continually leaving and returning to it; and, to judge from the sound, the greater number were uttering their soft, rolling notes that are so pleasing to hear.
“A striking and very noticeable feature of a flock is that, when disturbed, nearly all the birds will take wing and circle around a number of times until they come together in a close and compact body; then it appears as if at the same instant all were impelled by the same impulse to alight, and the flock will sail up to the chosen spot on stiffly extended wings, this action being uniform on the part of each individual; and during these various evolutions the soft, lisping notes of the birds are always much in evidence.
“In these flocks of waxwings other species will sometimes be found in limited numbers, robins and cedar waxwings most commonly. It is amusing to see the robins resent the presence of the Bohemians feeding upon the berries; the former would frequently make a dash at them and try to drive them away, but this was futile, as the latter simply shifted their positions and resumed feeding.
“On another occasion we saw a large flock that numbered nearly 2,000 birds, the majority occupying the tops of several small trees. Near the base of one of the trees, grew a tall, decorative rosebush, and as the bush had many hips, numbers of the birds attempted to alight therein to feed, but its branches, being too weak to sustain them, would continually give way, causing a constant commotion; the birds kept fluttering and interfering with one another and dislodging many hips, which fell to the walk beneath, to be eaten by the birds alighting there. The sight of these many birds in active motion reminded one of bees swarming about a hive.”
Bohemian waxwings are seldom seen singly, though one or two may be seen occasionally in a flock of cedar waxwings, with which they seem to be on friendly t.erms and to have similar habits. Mr. IRathbun mentions in his notes one that he saw entirely alone and a long way from home; while he was crossing the Gulf of Alaska, and was some 20 miles offshore, one solitary individual came aboard the ship and perched on one of the stays of the stack for nearly half an hour and then flew off low over the water toward land.
P. M. Silloway (1903) says of their flight behavior:
They were continually fluttering upward or outward from the tree-tops, hovering in air like kingblrds capturing insects a-wing. Their aerial movements were much like those of swallows over water, as they sailed, fluttered, or hovered with expanded tail, or mounted obliquely upward with rapidly beating wings. F’requently a crowded company of them would fly outward from some tree in which they had been sitting, keeping together in undulating flight, veering abruptly upward or downward or sidewise in capricious evolution.
Voice: As a vocalist the Bohemian waxwing is no star performer.
Mr. Swarth (1922) says of it:
Under ordinary circumstances the only sound uttered by the waxwing is a sibilant call note much like that of the more familiar cedar bird. While notes of the two species are of the same character, still they are distinguishably different. This difference may, perhaps, be indicated by describing the cedar bird’s call as a hiss, the Bohemian waxwing’s call as a buzz. The note of tile latter is somewhat coarser; the listener has an impression of hearing a series of very slightly separated notes, rather than of a continuous sound such as the cedar bird utters.
Mr. Cameron (1908) says that “when flying the birds keep up an incessant twittering, so that high passing flocks are immediately recognized by their call of sir-r-r-r: : a sort of trill. * * * The weak voice of a single waxwing is inaudible except at very close quarters, but hundreds together produce quite a volume of sound.” Ralph Hoffmann (1927) remarks that the note, ‘given when the birds wheel off in flight is a low rough scree, with more body than the sibilant call of the Cedar Waxwing.”
Dr. Harrison F. Lewis (MS.) watched a flock, near Quebec, that “seemed to be ‘all talking at once’, and the result was a continuous and fairly loud noise. The ordinary note seemed to resemble that of the cedar waxwing but was shriller and lighter in tone, resembling also the loud sibilant note often uttered by the robin. Besides a continual shower of these notes, there seemed to come from the flock an unceasing, jumbled twitter, much like the twitter of a large flock of slate-colored juncos, contentedly feeding.”
Field marks: A Bohemian might easily be mistaken for a cedar waxwing. It is a larger bird, but size is sometimes deceptive where there is no direct comparison. The underparts of the cedar waxwing are largely yellowish, but decidedly grayish in the Bohemian, and the latter has a black chin and a conspicuous white bar across the wing, and the under tail coverts are a rich brown.
Enemies: Frank L. Farley writes to me: “Pigeon hawks must take a heavy toll of the Bohemian waxwings while they are gathering in the Rockies and foothills to commence their wanderings to the south. On several trips after big game into these regions, I have seen large flocks of a hundred or more birds, sitting motionless and apparently fearful, on the top branches of a solitary leafless tree, out in an opening. If one looks about, he is almost certain to see a pigeon hawk perched in a nearby tree top, patiently watching the waxwings. The birds seem to know that they are safe, if they remain in the tree, but, if one puts them to flight, the hawk is off in a flash and easily takes one before the flock gets a hundred yards from the tree.”
Mr. Cameron (1908) says that, in very severe weather, when the waxwings were somewhat stupifled by the cold: they became the prey of ranch cats. A very fine male which our cat brought to me on Feb. 13, 1899, was quite fat after eighteen days of a cold wave during which 450 below zero was registered. I do not think that many Waxwings fall victims to Prairie Falcons, as they betake themselves to thick cover when the latter are about. On March 0, 1904. my wife and I approached within two yards of a flock of Waxw!ngs, which refused to leave a low cedar when a Rough-legged Hawk was sailing above.
Winter: It is probably failure of the food supply, rather than cold weather, that sends the Bohemians southward in winter. Mr. Cameron (1908) reports them as abundant winter residents even during the most severe winters, when the temperature goes down to 31~ or 450 below zero. Given food enough, they seem to be able to stand the Inost intense cold.
This species seems to he present regularly, in varying numbers, but apparently every winter, in Montana and in the Rocky Mountain region as far south as Colorado. It appears less regularly, and usually in smaller numbers, in Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and New England, these localities being far removed from its breeding grounds. Where food conditions are favorable, its winter sojourn may begin early in October and continue beyond the middle of April; the exact dates for different localities will be given under “Distribution.”
There have been several well-marked invasions recorded, in which these waxwings appeared in unusual localities and in enormous numbers. The most conspicuous flights occurred in the winters of 1908: 09, 1916: 17, 1919: 20, and 1930: 31. The first of these reported invasions covered such widely separated localities as New England, Iowa, and Colorado. The New England records are given in detail by Horace XV. Wright (1921), to which the reader is referred. For Iowa, Miss Althea R. Sherman (1921) reported that: on December 29, 1908, the day the Bohemian Waxwings arrived, a vast flock of birds was seen by two observers at points a half mile apart. * * The first observer was Mr. Jerome Jones, who stated that soon after daylight a vast flock of birds flew over his head, “millions of them” he estimated; that they covered the sky and were several minutes in passing. * * * The other observer was Mrs. D. A. Wright, whose description of the flock was written down soon after it passed and was substantially as follows: About eight o’clock in the morning she saw a flock, containing thousands of birds, fly northeast. They flew as closely together as birds ever do and covered a space from two hundred to three hundred feet in width and were two or three minutes in passing. She believed they were Bohemian Waxwings, nine of which for the following eighteen days frequented her mountain ash tree. There seems to be no other species to which to assign the birds of this great flock.
During the winter of 1916: 17 there was a great invasion of these waxwings throughout the western part of the country, at least from Washington to Colorado. Mr. Rathbun has sent me the following account of the birds that visited Seattle:
“The great incursion of the winter of 1916: 17 will long be remembered, for many, many thousands of individuals of the species were in the region at that time. As nearly as can be ascertained, this species made its first appearance about December 10, in flocks of considerable size; but, on the 26th or 27th, the great body of the birds arrived numbering thousands of individuals, which thereafter for some considerable period could be observed almost every day within a comparatively restricted area some six miles in length along the eastern border of the city, adjacent to Lake Washington. This was accounted for by the fact that within this particular section there was an abundant food supply in the form of the berries of the madrona tree (Arbutus menziesii), which had fruited with unusual abundance the past season, and of which the waxwings appeared very fond; it was not uncommon at times to count in one of the larger trees upward of five hundred of the birds.
“Always associated with the waxwings were flocks of the western robin ([/’urdu,s migratorius propinquus) ; of this species the individuals numbered several thousands; and at times when suddenly startled, this immense body of birds would arise, scattering in every direction, and then begin to congregate in flocks. On some occasions, they would all amalgamate into one vast flock and, after flying about, would again break up into small flocks; these would alight in the berry-laden trees and immediately resume feeding, until again disturbed, when these evolutions would be repeated. At all times the soft, rolling chatter of the many waxwings could be heard, which added to the interesting spectacle. On one particular occasion apparently all the individuals in a large portion of the section became associated, forming a flock that by careful estimate was an eighth of a mile in length and of considerable width.
“Many times, in these flocks of Bohemian waxwings, we observed a few cedar waxwings and, in the same locality, small flocks of pine siskins and willow goldfinches, which would sometimes mingle with the former in flight, but disassociate when the waxwings alighted.
“About January 25, the supply of madrona berries in this section became practically exhausted, and thereafter the waxwings were seen in smaller flocks and became scattered throughout the city in quest of suitable food. On many occasions the birds were seen in the parks of the city and about the residences where there was shrubbery that might bear berries; this continued until about February 15, after which date we have failed to note them.”
Several observers have commented on the abundance of Bohemian waxwings in Colorado during that winter, where the species may be a fairly regular winter visitor in the mountains, but is rarely seen in large numbers in the foothills, towns, and cities. Frederick C. Lincoln (1939) writes:
The most impressive invasion of this bird to he recorded in the history of Colorado ornithology occurred in February 1917, at which time I estimated that at least 10,000 wore Present within Ihe corporate limits of the city of Denver. Large flocks wore to be found in all of the city’s parks, where they frequented fruithearing shrubbery particularly the Russian olive. Many citizens tried to feed the visitors and after vainly offering bread crumbs and seeds of various kinds, finally discovered that canned pens xvere very acceptable. The last previous occurrence of the species in large numbers in that section was in 1908.
The most widespread and perhaps the greatest invasion of all came in the winter of 1919: 20. Mr. IRathbun refers to this in his notes from Seattle; the first waxwings were seen there on November 25, and they increased in numbers from then on, reaching their maximum in December and January and decreasing in February; the last one was noted on March 1.
Gabrielson and Jewett (1940) write: “The Bohemian waxwing is an irregular winter visitor over most of the State but appears most regularly in the mountain valleys about the base of the Blue Mountains. * * * In the winter of 1919: 20 there occurred a big invasion of these birds, and they were present in numbers in Portland, Corvallis, and other points in western Oregon as well as over most of eastern Oregon, reaching at least as far south as Adel, Lake County, where Gabrielson collected a bird out of a flock of approximately three hundred on April 3, 1920.”
This invasion extended to Nebraska, where large flocks were seen all over the State. Many hundreds were seen also in northern Illinois. This flight also reached New England, as far south as Massachusetts, but in comparatively smEill numbers. According to Horace W. Wright (1921), there had been a somewhat heavier invasion of New England during the latter part of the winter of 19 18: 19. There was a marked spread of Bohemian waxwings in Colorado in the winter of 1930: 31, but it was not nearly of the magnitude of that which occurred in 1916: 17. Gabrielson and Jewett (1940) report that the birds appeared again in numbers during the winter of 1931: 32, “going far south into California, according to published reports.”
Range: The Bohemian waxwing breeds in wooded sections of the northern part of the Northern Hemisphere, wandering irregularly southward in winter, sometimes in immense flocks.
Breeding range: The Bohemian waxwing is a vagrant and is irregular in its occurrences. Comparatively few nests of young have been found, and the outlining of the range where they may be found breeding in North America depends to a large extent on records of birds seen in the breeding season. This area extends north to northern Alaska (Kobuk River, Fort Yukon, and the Porcupine River above Coleen), northern Mackenzie (Akiavik, Fort- Anderson, Leith Point on Great Bear Lake, and Fort Reliance) ; northeastern Saskatchewan (Theitaga Lake); and northern Manitoba (Churchill), the easternmost point. South to northern Manitoba (Churchill and Cochrane River); southern Alberta (Flagstaff, Buffalo Lake near Mix, Red Deer, and Banff); northwestern Montana (Glacier Park and Granite Park) ; northern Idaho (Sandpoint); and central Washington (Lake Cle Elum). It has also been found in summer near the east base of Mount Evans, Cob., at about 12,000 feet altitude. West to central Washington (Lake Cle Elum) ; central British Columbia (mountains near Alta Lake, Quesnel, Hazelton, Telegraph Creek, and Atlin) ; southwestern Yukon (Burwash Landing) ; and to central and western Alaska (Chitina Moraine, Mount McKinley National Park, Nulato, and Kobuk River).
Winter range: The winter wanderings of the Bohemian waxwing are very irregular, probably influenced to a large degree by food supply. They may be present by the thousands in one year and then not be seen again for a long time. These “winter” occurrences frequently are not until late in winter or even spring. The area over which the species has occurred in winter or spring extends north to southeastern Alaska (Juneau) ; southwestern Mackenzie (Fort Liard) ; central British Columbia (Francois Lake and Puntehesakut Lake) ; southern Alberta (Buffalo Lake and Sullivan Lake) ; southern Saskatchewan (Eastend, Regina, and Yorkton) ; southern Manitoba (Brandon, Portage la Prairie, and Selkirk) ; southern Ontario (Lake Nipissing, Algonquin Park, and Ottawa) ; southern Quebec (Montreal and Quebec) ; Prince Edward Island (Tignish) ; and Nova Scotia (Pictou). East to Nova Scotia (Pictou and Halifax) ; southern Maine (Bangor and Auburn) ; and eastern Massachusetts (Bolton and Taunton). South to eastern Massachusetts (Taunton) ; Connecticut (Torrington) ; Pennsylvania (Atglen) ; central Ohio (Delaware and Quincy) ; central Indiana (Richmond and Indianapolis) ; southern Illinois (Villa Ridge) ; northwestern Arkansas (Fayetteville and Winslow); Kansas (Topeka, Wichita, and Hays); a single record in northwestern Texas (Palo Duro Creek, Randall County); Colorado (Colorado Springs, Salida, and Grand Junction) ; one record in central northern Nexv Mexico (Gold-Hill) ; northern Arizona (Grand Canyon and Moj eve; and a single occurrence in the Baboquivari Mountains in southern Arizona) ; and southern California (Danby, Daggett, Victorville, and Claremont). West to western California (Claremont, Berkeley, and Eureka); western Oregon (Carlton and Portland) ; Washington (Olympia, Seattle, and Bellingham) ; British Columbia (Esquimalt, southern Vancouver Island; and Vancouver); and southeastern Alaska (Ketchikan, Wrangell, and Juneau).
Migration: Tbe Bohemian waxwing is not migratory in the ordinary sense of the term, but a few dates of fall arrival and spring departure may be useful to show the erratic nature of its movements. Dates of fall arrival are: Quebec: Montreal, November 23. New York: Ithaca, November 28. Michigan: Sault Ste. Marie, October 26. Illinois: Waukegan, November 26. Minnesota: St. Paul, October 24. South Dakota: Yankton, November 29. Colorado: Fort Morgan, October 13. ‘Wyoming: Yellowstone Park, October 27. Montana: Fortine, September 11.
Dates of last seen in spring are: Montana: Great Falls, May 14. Wyoming: Laramie, April 5. Colorado: Denver, May 20. North Dakota: Fargo, April 18. Minnesota: Duluth, April 25. Wisconsin: Madison, March 23. Illinois: Chicago, April 18. Ohio: Youngstown, May 14. New York: Rochester, March 26. Massachusetts: Boston, April 27. New Brunswick: Scotch Lake, April 28. Quebec: Quebec, April 12.
Banding records: During an invasion in March 1932, several Bohemian waxwings were banded at Waukegan, Ill. One banded on March 23 was found dying on April 11 at Milwaukee, Wis., and one banded on March 25 was caught alive on April 15 at Craik, Saskatchewan, where it was kept until it died on May 1.
A bird banded at Summerland, British Columbia, on February 15, 1933, was killed on March 20, 1934, at Silver City, S. Dak.
During an invasion of Bohemian waxwings in Denmark in 1944, a bird was captured that had been banded on Helgoland in December 1941, during the previous invasion.
Casual record: A specimen of the Old World race (B. g. garrulu8) was collected June 14, 1931, from a flock of four at Cape Tobin, Liverpool Land, near the outlet of Scoresby Sound, East Greenland.
Egg dates: Alberta: 24 records, May 24 to June 13; 17 records, May 29 to June 6, indicating the height of the season.
British Columbia: 39 records, June 11 to July 24; 20 records, July 8 to 16.