Bohemian Waxwing

Kalyna Country’s Bohemian Inhabitants

That east central Alberta is a great place to visit year-round is no secret to one of the region’s more off-beat and colourful residents, who has been fittingly designated as the official bird of Kalyna Country. A member of the Bombycillidae family, ornithologists know it as Bombycilla garrulus, an appropriate name for a winged forager that is renowned as a bit of a chatterbox and an occasional party animal. However, it is more commonly referred to as the Bohemian Waxwing, and it is native to a large part of Western North America, much of Eastern Europe, and the vast coniferous forests extending from Scandinavia through Siberia.

Larger than a sparrow, the Bohemian Waxwing grows to 20 (8”) cm in size, and is slightly bigger, grayer and more elaborately plumed than its cinnamon-brown cousin, the Cedar Waxwing. Boasting a large crest on a crown with reddish-buff tint, as well as a narrow black eye-mask and black bib, the Bohemian Waxwing has always evoked an air of mystery because it looks as if it is dressed to attend an elegant masquerade. It also easily recognized by its bold black, yellow and white wingtip markings, and the fact that the underside of its yellow-tipped tail is a deep rust colour in contrast to the white of the Cedar Waxwing.

The gregarious Bohemian Waxwing likes to travel in large nomadic flocks, so it is not uncommon to see hundreds of them together at one time, especially as they prepare to migrate northwards in the spring to breed. With their dashing appearance, somewhat flighty demeanour, and penchant for congregating in flocks, they can create quite a stir if they visit your neighbourhood. Known to occasionally overindulge in feasts of overripe fruit – leading to behaviour described as “drunken revelry” – Bohemian waxwings are also famous for engaging in the sharing of food, often as part of unusually tender mating rituals. Unlike some birds that fiercely compete for access to food and water, the highly sociable Bohemians can be observed eating and bathing in an orderly fashion, with groups systematically harvesting a stand of berries or patiently taking turns to use a small puddle or pool.

The hardy Bohemians like to raise their young in remote parts of the boreal forest where the damp, mossy terrain can provide them with insects to supplement their mostly fruit diet. The traditional breeding ground of the Bohemian Waxwing stretches all the way from Alaska through the treed zones of the Yukon and the former Northwest Territories, to the northern parts of Canada’s prairie provinces. While in the winter months Bohemian Waxwings can range as far afield as central California, across a large part of mainland Canada, and into many areas of the mid-western United States, they can frequently be found in their most impressive concentrations in central and southern Alberta, southern Saskatchewan, and the interior of British Columbia. They are also fairly common in adjacent parts of the United States. Their preferred habitat is parkland terrain, with access to running water and a variety of fruit to sustain them.

In the wild, Bohemian waxwings announce their presence with their striking appearance and their wheezy call, but they can discretely blend into the leafy shrubs and trees where they typically like to perch. Their migrations and movements are often unpredictable, and they have a reputation for suddenly appearing and disappearing from feeding grounds, sometimes moving among several over a period of time before flying off once the bushes have been picked clean.

Local populations of over-wintering Bohemian Waxwings fluctuate according the availability of the berries that are their main source of food. In addition to mountain ash, juniper and cedar berries, highbush cranberries are a favourite treat when they haven’t already been completely stripped by other wildlife or collected by human berry-pickers. So besides providing a touch of colour in the winter landscape, the red clusters of frozen berries clinging to the bare branches of kalyna bushes are something for the voracious Bohemian Waxwings to sing about. It’s just one more reason to include some highbush cranberry in your garden – there is a good chance you’ll hear about it on a cold winter day should word get out to a roving band of feathered bohemians on the prowl for something nutritious and tasty to eat.

Researched and written by Jars Balan
Sources: Peterson, Roger Tory. A Field Guide to Western Birds. Boston-New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. Third edition. 1990, p. 282.

Bovey, Robin. Birds of Edmonton. Illustrated by Ewa Pluciennik. Edmonton: Lone Pine Publishing, 1990, p. 71.

Svensson, Lars and Peter. J. Grant. Birds of Europe. Translated by David Christie. Princeton (NJ): Princeton University Press, 1999, p. 254.

Also see “Waxwings are Wild” at www.wordwiz72.com/waxwing.html, and “Bohemian Waxwing” at http://mbgnet.mobot.org/sets/taiga/animals/waxwing.htm.