06 December 2014

One early November morning a neighbour rang me. “You said you wanted to know if I had anything interesting: would some chatterers be interesting?” I dropped everything and ran.
The last time I had such a call they had all flown by the time I got there. This time I was in luck, there were 17 of them. These birds are really a continental species as their true name of Bohemian Waxwing implies. There are only three  members of the genus Bombycilla in the World: one each in Japan, North America and Europe.
ChattererWebThe European one B. garrulus, usually known as the common waxwing, occurs in Central Europe where, in summer, it feeds upon insects turning to berries in winter. When there is a dearth of berries the birds irrupt into areas where berries are more plentiful. This year there must have been great shortage of berries in Europe for the first week in November is early for an irruption of waxwings into Scotland.
They are exceptionally beautiful birds. About the size of a starling, for whom, in flight, they may be mistaken.  Their overall plumage is described as grey-brown but to me they are a soft lilac and have distinct backward pointing crests. The tip of the tail is yellow, and it has bright red markings on the wings from whose appearance, as of sealing wax, it gets its name.
It is because of its striking appearance that, despite its rarity in Scotland, it has so many names. Its scientific name of Bombycilla garrulus comes from Greek: bombukos, silk and cilla, tail. Garrulus means talkative and, in Gaelic it is Caifean or Gabar, ‘chatterer’. Locally it is called black-throated waxwing, Bohemian Jay or silktail.
It has been known in Britain since the  17th Century. Gilbert White wrote of it: “It cannot  … be called an English bird: and yet I see by Ray’s philosophical letters, that great flocks of them, feeding upon haws, appeared in this kingdom in the winter of 1685.”
In the ,mid- 1960s  there was a similar large irruption of several thousands into Britain. For this reason it is known in Holland as the plague-bird, for it arrives in such numbers as to suggest a biblical plague.

Robin Hull


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