Waxwings get their name from their bright red wing tips, which are said to look like drops of melted wax running down their feathers. The bird is unmistakable due to its large, chestnut head-crest, wide, black bib and mask. Adult plumage is a warm pinkish buff-brown, with a grey rump. Its short tail is coloured blackish and has a broad, yellow tip. It has a yellowish belly contrasting with an orange-brown vent. The waxwing has pointed wings, which when closed show a remarkable pattern of white tips to primary coverts, and secondaries with waxy red appendages. Bill and legs are black. Distinguishing between the sexes is not easy. However, the female tends to have a less intense black bib than the male and less bright markings on wing and tail. Immature birds are duller than adults, especially on their wings. They lack the adult’s rich plumage tones and wing decoration.
The waxwing has a weak wheezing and twittering song. Its call is a thin, shrill whistle.
A group of four Waxwings calling
Peter Stronach, XC625925. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/625925.
Bombycilla, part of the waxwing’s scientific name, means silk in Latin, a reference to the bird’s soft plumage.
In the summer, waxwings are mostly insectivorous, catching flying insects in sallies from a perch. In the winter they will feed on fruit, primarily rowan or hawthorn berries.
Waxwing feeding on berries
Waxwings favour coniferous forests and woodlands, they often build their nests in pine trees. In winter they drawn to towns and gardens to gorge themselves on berries. The waxwing does not breed in the UK and visits only in the winter. The first arrivals occur on the east coast of Britain, from Scotland to East Anglia. The birds then gradually make their way inland.
Close up of a Waxwing
In flight, waxwings can easily be mistaken for starlings as both species have a similar profile. Both also fly with quick, undulating movements. However, waxwings are distinguished by their white wing bars. The waxwing generally stays alert and nervous, even when feeding.
During the breeding season, waxwings favour nesting sites among old stunted conifers, and close to water. The birds’ courtship ritual consists of the pair passing fruit or a small inedible object back and forth until one of them eats it. The waxwing builds a cup-shaped nest lined with moss and lichen. Bothe adults collect material for the nest, but the female will generally take charge of construction. The female will lay a clutch of about 5 eggs that are smooth, and coloured glossy pale bluish-grey, speckled with black. The eggs will be incubated for 13-14 days. The female will incubate the eggs while the male brings her food. The pair will then share duties in raising the young. The fledgeling period is 15-17 days. They will raise 1 brood a year.
Pair of feeding Waxwings
The average lifespan of a Waxwing is around 5 years.
Waxwings are not long-distance migrants but move nomadically outside of the breeding season. Waxwings migrate to Britain from northern Europe in the winter, arriving in October and generally staying until April.
In the UK, the waxwing has a Green conservation status. The UK has a wintering population of 10,000 birds.
Get the latest BirdFacts delivered straight to your inbox