By James Duncan
Learning & Engagement Officer
It would seem bizarre to wish for any invasion of Britain. Fortunately there's one winter invasion that's rather more desirable, one of an avian kind. For anybody familiar with the Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus), fingers will be kept firmly crossed for their arrival on our shores. But where should such a striking, exquisite bird typically call home? Strangely enough, it's the sub-Arctic, ranging from Fenno-Scandia all the way across Northern Siberia. The dense, damp, lichen-rich coniferous forests of the Taiga. There's certainly no guarantee of their arrival here, not for large numbers at least, as there's a pivotal factor determining their descent upon us - the failure of the berry crop on their northerly breeding grounds. Should this happen, the dwindling resources dictate a necessity to wander. This will send them far and wide, spreading across Europe and Asia in a frenzied, chattering berry rampage. The cyclical nature of berry crops dictates that any British Waxwing influx is by no means a given. Indeed, it may be some years between so-called 'irruptions', whereby thousands of these gregarious extroverts arrive en masse. Scotland and Northern England are typically the first to receive them, though with a stroke of luck their quest moves them gradually south toward Sussex.
Known alternatively as the 'Bohemian Waxwing', the use of the word in reference to its nomadic, irregular and somewhat unpredictable wandering nature seems entirely appropriate, even if it may not be the sole reason. However, the naming of the Waxwing, scientific and common, both stem from its remarkably unique appearance. Their features are so precise, so intricate, as if lifted straight from a painting. Silky smooth, immaculately preened, with a swooping hat-like crest, a bandit-like black mask and extensive make-up. And this barely scratches the surface of their decoration. It's little wonder they're regarded in such high esteem. Bombycilla itself translates directly to 'silk-tail' whereas 'Waxwing' relates to the red, waxy appendages that adorn their secondary flight feathers. Depending on the ambient temperature and mood of a Waxwing flock, they may appear rather rotund in isolation, so it's surprising they're actually smaller than a Starling. This is, however, undoubtedly the species they most resemble, owing to their garrulous habits and characteristics rather than visual appearance. Indeed, see a flock in flight and you'd be forgiven for confusing the two - a short tail and triangular wings make them markedly similar.
Waxwing © Jon Hawkins, Surrey Hills Photography
For a rather small bird, the Waxwing has a rather large appetite. Consider the fact that an individual bird may consume a number of times its own body weight in berries every single day. Extrapolate that to an entire flock and it's clear that the supply of any berry-producing tree isn't going to last long in the force of a full-on Waxwing assault. Once they've cleared an area, they quickly move on to plunder another. You may have to be quick to catch sight of one of their marauding gangs. Like a number of berry-feeding birds, they display a strict system of colour preference. Red berries are favoured, provided largely by Rowan, Hawthorn, Cotoneaster, Whitebeam, Pyracanthus and Viburnum. Should 'red' be in short supply, they'll move onto orange berries, which are in turn favoured over yellow and white berries. Of course, in winter, fruit has a habit of fermenting and Waxwings may become intoxicated as a result. For any arboreal (tree-dwelling) specialist, the loss of flying ability is far from ideal. Fortunately for the Waxwing, it has a rather more efficient liver than us humans and recovers far more quickly from extended bouts of winter inebriation.
Considering the Waxwing's preference for Arctic latitudes, you'd think you'd have to trek to the remotest and most inaccessible rural regions to spot them. Somewhat ironically, you may have only to pop down to your local supermarket. Not inside of course, but in the car park. The simple reason for this is non-commercial planting of their favourite fruiting trees. In a twist of fate, a secretive forest dweller has become the ultimate winter urban specialist. Keep your eyes peeled around any suitable industrial estate. Their excitable trills may well alert you to their presence, a high-pitched sibilant sirrrrrr, sounding reminiscent of a tiny bell. A pleasing characteristic of the Waxwing is their surprising confidence in the face of people. It's doubtful they encounter many humans in their remote breeding areas, something which often translates to this approachability on our small island. Should an irruption occur, the Waxwing provides a prime example of an exotic species that may, quite literally, appear within the tree on your doorstep.