I have been seeing reports of small flocks of waxwings appearing around the West Midlands this winter. About ten days ago there was a group of about ten birds prospecting along Tipton’s canals. There have also been sightings in the Sandwell Valley, Moseley, Stourbridge and Wolverhampton. Waxwings are brightly coloured birds which breed in Scandinavia and Russia; small numbers come to Britain every winter. About once every five years large numbers arrive, and this winter seems to be one of those. (I last wrote about them exactly five years ago, when they were also numerous.) There have been recent reports of them from the Highlands of Scotland to Suffolk and Dorset. Such widespread and frequent sightings are called an ‘irruption’.
Waxwings are unmistakable, being short-legged, plump birds about the size of a starling. They have a pointed crest, and look as if they have been daubed with colours by an impressionist artist. Overall they are reddish brown, with black, white, grey, yellow and red highlights, and have a prominent dark eye-stripe. Their red-tipped wings give them their name, although they are also known as silktails and Bohemian waxwings. They are rarely seen alone, usually travelling in flocks of a dozen or two, although much larger numbers may be encountered.
No one is quite sure what causes the periodic irruptions, but it is probably a combination of weather driving them south, and a shortage of winter berries in their homelands. There may also be a connection with particularly good breeding seasons, resulting in larger numbers of birds competing for winter food. Once here they seek out tree and shrubs, especially those with red berries, such as hawthorns, roses, cotoneasters and rowans. They are equally at home in town and country. This means that you are just as likely to see them in your local parks and gardens as in the countryside, and they are not at all shy of people.
There is no doubt that to come upon a flock of these bustling, colourful birds in the sunshine of a late winter day is an uplifting experience. Waxwings and other birds need trees and shrubs in our streets and gardens. Without their berries there would be no waxwings, or other birds either, and they could not brighten our days. If we help them, they will help us.