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This medium-sized songbird is 7½-8½ inches long, has a wingspan of 13-14 inches, and weighs just under 2 ounces. Brownish-gray overall, it has a sharply defined black mask and a black throat. There is a white streak behind the bill and a white curve below the eye. The lower belly is a rich chestnut colour and there are cinnamon-coloured areas around the mask. The rump is grey and the tail ends in a bright yellow band with a broad black border above it. The flight feathers are black and the primaries have markings that produce a yellow stripe and white "fishhooks" on the closed wing. The adult's secondaries end in long waxy red appendages. The eyes are dark brown, the bill is mainly black, and the legs are dark grey or black. Both sexes are similarly colored, while juveniles lack the red and yellow tips on the wing feathers, and may show less definition in the facial markings.
Distribution and Habitat
Bohemian waxwings breed across southern Canada into Alaska and across northern Eurasia. Migration starts in September in the north of the range, a month or so later farther south. Eurasian birds normally winter from eastern Britain through northern parts of western and central Europe, the Ukraine, Kazakhstan and northern China to Japan. North American breeders have a more southeasterly trend, many birds wintering in southeast Canada, with smaller numbers in the north central and northeastern U.S. states. Birds do not usually return to the same wintering sites in successive years.
Lowlands, valleys and uplands are used in Eurasia, although mountains tend to be avoided, but the North American subspecies nests in Canada at altitudes between 3,000 and 5,000 feet. Outside the breeding season, the waxwing will occupy a wide range of habitats as long as suitable fruits are abundant, including urban areas.
Breeding usually occurs from mid-June into July. Both sexes work on the nest, which is a cup of twigs, moss, and grass constructed 4 to 50 feet above ground in a conifer. The 4-6 eggs (which are bluish marked with black) are incubated by the female along for 12-14 days, during which time the male feeds her with regurgitated fruits. The chicks are cared for by both parents for 14-18 days. They will continue to associate with both parents for some time thereafter, perhaps remaining with them through their first fall and winter migrations.
Bohemian waxwings feed on berries, fruit, insects, and sap. When feeding, these birds will stay in one area with an abundant food source until that food is stripped, which may not take long with large flocks, particularly since fruits and berries are swallowed whole. Depending on the quality of the food and how long fruit has been on the tree or bush, fermentation may cause these birds to act drunkenly, with erratic flight patterns and other symptoms of intoxication. While foraging, they can be acrobatic and may even hover briefly to pluck berries or fruit. They usually take insects by watching from high perch then flying out to catch them in mid-air, but they also forages in trees. Berries are taken while perched or hovering. Except when nesting, they almost always forage in flocks.
This bird's common name refers to its habit of moving frequently, usually in large flocks, and to its seemingly carefree lifestyle, much like the travel and lifestyle typically associated with "Bohemian gypsies."
The Bohemian waxwing is a very vocal bird, and its most familiar call is a high, rapid buzzing trill of sharp notes. Because these birds are highly nomadic, they do not have common songs to defend territories.
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This page was last updated on March 22, 2018.