Much-maligned waxwing makes return trip to WWF

Posted on 28 January 2009  | 
Gland, Switzerland - The Bohemian Waxwing, a particularly beautiful bird nevertheless believed by people in Medieval times to be the bearer of bad luck, plague and pestilence, has paid its 2nd visit this century to WWF headquarters after coming to Switzerland only 5 times in substantial numbers throughout the whole of the last century.

A total of 27 of them honoured WWF's garden during their visit last week, and several lucky people had a chance to briefly admire them, perched on a tree near the bikes shelter and feeding on orange berries in the nearby bushes.

The waxwing is a sub-Arctic bird that breeds in coniferous forests throughout the most northern parts of Europe, Asia and western North America. In winter it rarely visits western Europe further south than the Low Countries, but a second trip in 5 years to Switzerland could suggest changing tastes (or changing climate?).

The waxwing was treated with great suspicion in the Middle Ages when invasions would often coincide with bouts of plague, which were of course quite common. People felt the two occurrences were linked but there has never been any scientific evidence to support such superstition.

The name waxwing refers to the bright red bead-like tips of the secondary feathers on its wings, which look like drops of sealing wax but which several hundred years ago were seen as flames from hell carrying all manner of unspeakable epidemics.

To this day the Dutch name for waxwing remains Pest Vogel (Plague Bird). The French name, “Jaseur” meaning gossip or chatterer, is also an anomaly as they are mostly silent in their winter quarters.

With a particularly elegant plumage, the waxwing has a fine peach-coloured crest, bright yellow tips on its tail feathers and a yellow or white stripe along the wing feathers. Under-tail coverts are a deep rust colour.

Because it is not hunted by man it has grown very confident and will come very close in gardens, allowing easy visibility.
  • The last visit to Switzerland and WWF headquarters in Gland took place in the winter of 2004-2005.
  • Prior to that major irruptions into Switzerland occurred in the winters of 1903/04, 1941/42, 1963/64, 1965/66 and 1988/89.

The reasons for their occasional trips here are not so much for the mountain air or the spas but a lack of the food they find in their usual haunts such as apples, grapes and berries, in particular those of the Rowan, a member of the rose family with especially juicy berries. This normally follows a particularly severe winter, such as the one we have experienced in Europe this year, or an especially good breeding year, or a combination of both.
The Bohemian Waxing, outside WWF headquarters during a rare visit to Switzerland last week
The Bohemian Waxing, outside WWF headquarters during a rare visit to Switzerland last week
© WWF International / Elma Okic Enlarge

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