Waxwings only visit the UK in the winter, spending their breeding season in the boreal forest belt that stretches from Scandinavia, through Russia and across parts of North America. The numbers that reach us depend on the availability of berries on the Continent. In years where the abundance of berries is low, birds have to move away to find food elsewhere.
Highs and lows
As the winter movements of waxwings are dependent on the amount of food available on the other side of the North Sea, the UK can receive anything from a few dozen individuals to as many as 12,000 each year. Most years we attract at least a few birds and they usually arrive from October and can be seen up until April.
Movements in Britain
Due to the breeding grounds being east and north of Britain, eastern and northern Britain get the highest numbers of waxwings during the winter. In years where many birds arrive, they tend to disperse further south and west throughout the winter as they deplete the berry crops.
Waxwings are often seen in urban areas such as supermarket car parks where ornamental berry-bearing shrubs are planted. © Jeff Baker/BTO
Preference for rowan
Our native rowan is the favoured plant of waxwings, but they will take other native and non-native Sorbus berries, including hawthorn, cotoneaster and rosehips. If they’re in the area and you don’t have berries, they can be attracted into gardens using halves of apples hung from a tree. Supermarket car parks are a classic place to see these birds as they often have ornamental shrubs with berries.
Berries are incredibly important for waxwings in the winter and they typically eat 800-1000 berries a day, roughly twice their body weight! In the breeding season, however, they feed mostly on mosquitoes and midges so it is not unusual to see birds that are still here in the spring feeding on insects, flowers and tree buds.
What’s in a name?
Waxwings get their name from the long glossy red tips to the feather shafts in the middle of their wings. They are starling-sized with peach-brown plumage and a characteristic crest. The tail has a yellow tip to it, as do the edges of the flight feathers on the wings, and they have a narrow black eye mask and chin, and a chestnut undertail.
The British Trust of Ornithology (BTO) works in partnership with over 40,000 volunteer birdwatchers to chart the fortunes of UK birds.
Main image: © Morris Rendall/BTO