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Migration underway, humans and birds

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Photo cutline: Fruit trees represent a rich source of energy for Bohemian Waxwings. These two are sitting on an Eastern Wahoo.

It's as predictable as moon phases. About the time snow starts to fly, many northern folks leave behind their homes and the looming winter, and flee to warmer climates in the South. Arizona, Texas, and Florida seem to carry the bulk of snowbirds from this area.

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I can't blame them. There may be a day when I am able to engage in this annual migration. But in the meantime, I try and appreciate the four seasons and all they offer.

But by reading bird reports from those other states, it's easy to become envious of the large number of species typical of southern latitudes. Green jay, vermillion flycatcher, pine warbler...wouldn't it be nice to see one of these on a January day? Yet, we northerners have a small number of delightful species that southerners only wish they could see. Among these is the Bohemian Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulous).

Most casual observers are familiar with the Cedar Waxwing. They are one of the birds that invade your crabapple tree and devour the fruit with gusto. But I'm speaking of its winter visiting cousin. "Waxwing," by the way, refers to the red, wax-like beads on the bird's wing feathers.

There are three waxwing species in the world, and we get to see two here--Cedar and Bohemian. (The other, the Japanese Waxwing, is an Asia-only bird). Bohemian Waxwings nest in the far north from northern Ontario to Alaska and from Siberia to Scandinavia. But when weather turns chilly in the fall, the birds leave for feeding opportunities to the south. That's when we get our opportunity to observe them locally.

Bohemian Waxwings are medium-sized, brownish-gray songbirds with a crest on the top of its head. The tail is tipped in bright yellow and black surrounds its beak and under its chin. Wing feather edgings show white, yellow and some red. Under the bird's tail is a cinnamon color, diagnostic of the species.

Cedar Waxwings look very similar but careful observation should solve the question. The Cedar is smaller, has a yellowish belly, and lacks the Bohemian's black chin and rusty cinnamon under the tail. Both sound similar--a high-pitched wheeze--but the Bohemian call is more trilled, slightly lower-pitched and hoarser.

These birds are almost strictly fruit eaters supplemented with lesser quantities of insects. Flocks of Bohemian Waxwings (and Cedars too) wander about in search of a food supply. Bohemians are chiefly seen in this area mixed with its Cedar cousins. Once found, the birds engage in stuffing themselves by swallowing fruits whole. Days or weeks may find them in a single location. But after exhausting the food stocks, the birds simply disappear. For this reason they can be unreliable and frustrating to find.

There were several local reports of Bohemian Waxwings earlier this winter but lately they have been very scarce. Large plantings of crabapples (think NDSU's Centennial Boulevard) would be a person's best bet for finding some. Watch other fruit bearing trees also. Still it's a hit-or-miss affair most times. Moreover, has anyone else noticed that most crabapples in our area are largely stripped of fruit?

These birds can be fairly easily approached and viewed at a somewhat close range. In spring, Waxwings are one of those birds that can behave in a drunken manner after feeding on fermented fruit. The artist, John James Audubon, is said to have collected specimens of waxwings by merely picking them up while in this state.

While those in the South enjoy warmer weather and sunshine, I think we in the North tend to place greater value on the limited glimpses of color and life. If only fleetingly, Bohemian Waxwings represents one of those glimpses. And one those southern folks rarely, if ever, get to savor.

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