WAXWINGS Bombycillidae
The Waxwings are a small family of Northern Hemisphere passerines, known for their irruptive flocks, soft crests, and waxy spots on their wings. Widespread in temperate North America is the Cedar Waxwing (left in this very nice shot by John Butler), visiting a juniper bush. Waxwings and berry bushes are closely linked; flocks gather to devour one crop and then, almost mysteriously, disappear to find the next. Farther north, and spread across the entire Holarctic, is the larger Bohemian Waxwing (below in a fine photo by Graham Catley). I always think of Bohemian Waxwings as birds of ice and frost, and Graham's photo (taken in England on a cold wintry day in February) captures this feeling -- ice clinging to the bare twigs, contrasting with the soft gray textures of the bird. His shot also shows well the odd wax-like droplets on the wings for which the birds are named.

There are just three species in the family: the two illustrated with photos here and Japanese Waxwing Bombycilla japonica of northeast Asia. Only the Cedar & the Bohemian have the odd, drop-like, waxy appendages on the tips of their secondaries; the Japanese Waxwing lacks this feature but does have red-pigmented tips to the feathers themselves. The purpose of the waxy spots is not known, and is not apparently linked to sex or age (except it is lacking in streaky juvenal plumage).

I rather like how Bent (1950) introduced the Bohemian Waxwing:
"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... He 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."
Another neat feature about waxwings is their very high-pitched calls, picked out by the keen-eared birder. Those of Bohemians are lower-pitched and rougher; the really challenge to beginning American birders is learning to "filter the air" with one's ears to tune in flocks of Cedar Waxwings (like the group below). For older observers, this is one of the first sounds to be lost as hearing deteriorates. I remember being impressed with the late Roger Tory Peterson's "ear-ability" into his '80s; while his eye-sight had diminished, he still easily picked up on waxwings during Big Days.
The taxonomic relationships of the Bombycillidae remain controversial. Sibley & Monroe (1990) placed the family in close proximity to thrushes and Old World flycatchers, and listed three "tribes" of the Bombycillidae: the waxwings (Bombycillini), the Palmchat (Dulini), and the silky-flycatchers (Ptilogonatini). The 7th ed. A.O.U. Check-list (1998), while acknowledging this suggestion, placed them closer to pipits and starlings in a more traditional position, and considered all the "tribes" to be worthy of family status. This latter conclusion seems to better emphasize the differences between the groups. I follow the A.O.U.'s lead on this point, which is also consistent with Voous (1977) and Cramp (1988). All agree, however, that they are likely each other's closest relatives, and they are similar to each other in skeletal characters.

More controversial is the position of Hypocolius Hypocolius ampelinus of the Middle East. It, too, occurs in flocks and has soft, silky plumage. Cramp (1988) considers it a subfamily of the Bombycillidae, and so do Keith, Urban & Fry (1992). I prefer this arrangement, but it is my understanding that the on-going Handbook of the Birds of the World series will consider the Hypocolidae to be a separate family and so, tentatively, do I. This is the position set by Sibley & Monroe (1990) who did not consider Hypocolius to be near the other groups.

Whatever their taxonomic position, for those of us who live south of the usual breeding range of any species, gregarious flocks of waxwings are one of the first signs that summer is over. In Monterey County, the first Cedars arrive by mid-September and then linger quite late. Their abundance appears to increase in April-May (with the fruiting of more trees & bushes?) and a few often linger to the first of June. We were unable to be sure whether any nest in Monterey County during our Breeding Bird Atlas (Roberson & Tenney 1983), although there was some fairly compelling circumstantial evidence. They probably nest here occasionally.

Photos: The Cedar Waxwing Bombycilla cedrorum photo at upper left was taken by John Butler in San Diego County, California, in Jan 1973; the two birds below it were part of a larger flock in Monterey in April 1999 (photo by D. Roberson). Graham Catley photographed the Bohemian Waxwing B. garrulus at Skegness, Lincolnshire, England, in Feb 1988. Photos © of the photographers listed, used with permission; all rights reserved.

Bibliographic note:

There is no "family book" of which I'm aware, so I gleaned information from Bent (1950), Cramp (1988), and Keith et al. (1992).

Literature cited:

American Ornithologists' Union. 1998. Check-list of North American Birds, 7th ed. A.O.U., Washington, D.C.

Bent, A. C. 1950. Life histories of North American wagtails, shrikes, vireos, and their allies. U. S. Nat. Mus. Bull. 197. Smithsonian Instit., Washington, D. C.

Cramp, S., ed. 1988. Handbook of the Birds of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Vol. V, Tyrant Flycatchers to Thrushes. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford.

Keith, S., E. K. Urban, and C. H. Fry. 1992. The Birds of Africa. Vol. IV. Academic Press, London.

Roberson, D., and C. Tenney, eds. Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Monterey County, California. Monterey Pen. Audubon Soc., Carmel.

Sibley, C. G., and B. L. Monroe, Jr. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

Voous, K. H. 1977. List of Recent Holarctic Bird Species. London.



Page created 25 Dec 1999