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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Mark Cocker

Country diary: Voracious, stunning and sometimes drunk – the waxwings are here

Waxwing on a rowan tree with red berries in Perth, Scotland.
‘The bird’s fruit-consuming capabilities should be noted. A single waxwing has been recorded to devour four times its body weight in six hours.’ Photograph: Espen Helland/Alamy

Many recall the white walls of hawthorn blossom which sang out this spring. Yet fewer perhaps will appreciate how they’re the source of a secondary display of beauty now. I’m not thinking of the current red-berry spectacular, but of the waxwings that have arrived to feed on it.

The bird breeds in subarctic taiga (boreal forests), its range spreading as a tonsure around the planet’s northern crown. In years when Eurasia’s forests fail to fruit, however, waxwings come south, sometimes in huge numbers. These unpredictable irruptions were recorded as early as 1552 and, in the typical manner of our species, interpreted as a commentary upon human affairs. “Pestvogel” – plaguebird – and “deathbird” were two old titles.

The names are doubly sad because no creature feels more like a blessing. My moment of benediction came first thing on Sunday morning as I was savouring the cold-blue skies over Perth’s silent inner city, when there was a silvery sound of far-away tinkling bells above South Methven Street.

The bare tree there was suddenly filled with about 100 waxwings, more than I’ve ever seen before, and reports of 500 near Aberdeen portend possibly the largest invasion ever. We are currently well equipped to host these numbers, but the bird’s fruit-consuming capabilities should be noted. A single waxwing has been recorded to devour four times its body weight in six hours. A flock of seven can clear a 30-metre hedge of berries in days.

They thus spend large amounts of time flying across the countryside in search of fresh stocks. The official name, Bohemian waxwing, captures this wandering habit, but it rather nicely evokes their louche manners when the fruits ferment. Waxwings apparently relish the alcohol and this is one of the few birds worldwide to get drunk.

There is a final virtue to highlight about waxwing invasions. They’re birds of astonishing beauty. The body is largely ginger-tinged cinnamon, finished with little design details of crisp white, bright yellow and red. Under the tail nestles a secret patch of softest maroon. Then there is that bell-like voice, whose shivering quality strikes me as like the dusting of snow on a well-bedecked Christmas tree.

• Country diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary

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