WAXWING, a bird first so called apparently by P. J. Selby in 1825 (Illustr. Brit. Ornithology, p. 87), having been before known as the “silk-tail” (Philos. Transactions, 1685, p. 1161)—a literal rendering of the German Seidenschwanz—or “chatterer”—the prefix “German,” “Bohemian” or “waxen” being often also applied. Selby’s convenient name has now been generally adopted, since the bird is readily distinguished from almost all others by the curious expansion of the shaft of some of its wing feathers at the tip into a flake that looks like scarlet sealing-wax, while its exceedingly silent habit makes the name “chatterer” wholly inappropriate, and indeed this last arose from a misinterpretation of the specific term garrulus, meaning a jay (from the general resemblance in colour of the two birds), and not referring to any garrulous quality. It is the Ampelis garrulus of Linnaeus and of more recent ornithologists, and is the type of the Passerine family Ampelidae.
The waxwing is a bird that for many years excited vast interest. An irregular winter-visitant, sometimes in countless hordes, to the whole of the central and some parts of southern Europe, it was of old time looked upon as the harbinger of war, plague or death, and, while its harmonious coloration and the grace of its form were attractive, the curiosity with which its irregular appearances were regarded was enhanced by the mystery which enshrouded its birthplace, and until the summer of 1856 defied the searching of any explorer. In that year, however, all doubt was dispelled through the successful search in Lapland, organized by John Wolley, as briefly described by him to the Zoological Society (Proceedings, 1857, pp. 55, 56, pi. cxxii.). In 1858 H. E. Dresser found a small settlement of the species on an island in the Baltic near Uleåborg, and with his own hands took a nest. It is now pretty evident that the waxwing, though doubtless breeding yearly in some parts of northern Europe, is as irregular in the choice of its summer-quarters as in that of its winter-retreats. Moreover, the species exhibits the same irregular habits in America. It has been found in Nebraska in “millions,” as well as breeding on the Yukon and on the Anderson river.
Beautiful as is the bird with its full erectile crest, its cinnamon-brown plumage passing in parts into grey or chestnut, and relieved by black, white and yellow—all of the purest tint—the external feature which has invited most attention is the “sealing-wax” (already mentioned) which tips some of the secondary or radial quills, and occasionally those of the tail. This is nearly as much exhibited by the kindred species, A. cedrorum—the well-known cedar-bird of the English in North America—which is easily distinguished by its smaller size, less black chin-spot, the yellower tinge of the lower parts and the want of white on the wings. In the A. phoenicopterus of southern-eastern Siberia and Japan, the remiges and rectrices are tipped with red in the ordinary way without dilatation of the shaft of the feathers.
Both the waxwing and cedar-bird seem to live chiefly on insects in summer, but are marvellously addicted to berries during the rest of the year, and will gorge themselves if opportunity allow. They are pleasant cage-birds, quickly becoming tame. The erratic habits of the waxwing are probably due chiefly to the supplies of food it may require, prompted also by the number of mouths to be fed, for there is some reason to think that this varies greatly from one year to another, according to season. The flocks which visit Britain and other countries outside the breeding range of the species naturally contain a very large proportion of young birds. (A. N.)
- A fuller account of his discovery, illustrated by Hewitson, is given in The Ibis (1861, pp. 92-106, pl. iv).