Black-Throated Waxwing, or Bohemian Chatterer

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Birds of America

By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.


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[Bohemian Waxwing.]

[Bombycilla garrulus.]


The first intimations of the occurrence of this beautiful bird in North America, were made by Mr. DRUMMOND and Dr. RICHARDSON, by the former of whom it was found in 1826, near the sources of the Athabasca, or Elk river, in the spring, and by the latter, in the same season, at Great Bear Lake, in latitude 50 degrees. Dr. RICHARDSON states, in the Fauna Boreali-Americana, that "specimens procured at the former place, and transmitted to England, by the servants of the Hudson's Bay Company, were communicated by Mr. LEADBEATER to the Prince of MUSIGNANO, who had introduced the species into his great work on the Birds of the United States." "In its autumn migration southwards," he continues, "this bird must cross the territory of the United States, if it does not actually winter within it; but I have not heard of its having been hitherto seen in America to the southward of the fifty-fifth parallel of latitude. The mountainous nature of the country skirting the Northern Pacific Ocean being congenial to the habits of this species, it is probably more generally diffused in New Caledonia and the Russian American Territories, than to the eastward of the Rocky Mountain chain. It appears in flocks at Great Bear Lake about the 24th of May, when the spring thaw has exposed the berries of the alpine arbutus, marsh vaccinium, &c., that have been frozen and covered during winter. It stays only for a few days, and none of the Indians of that quarter with whom I conversed had seen its nests; but I have reason to believe, that it retires in the breeding season to the rugged and secluded mountain-limestone districts, in the sixty-seventh and sixty-eighth parallels, where it feeds on the fruit of the common juniper, which abounds in those places." In a note, he further states:--"I observed a large flock, consisting of at least three or four hundred individuals, on the banks of the Saskatchewan at Carlton House, early in May 1827. They alighted in a grove of poplars, settling all on one or two trees, and making a loud twittering noise. They stayed only about one hour in the morning, and were too shy to allow me to approach within gunshot."

I am informed by Mr. TOWNSEND, who has spent about four years in the Columbia river district and on the Rocky Mountains, that he did not observe there a single bird of this species. In the autumn of 1832, whilst rambling near Boston, my sons saw a pair, which they pursued more than an hour, but without success. The most southern locality in which I have known it to be procured, is the neighbourhood of Philadelphia, where, as well as on Long Island, several were shot in 1830 and 1832. The specimens from which I made the figures of the male and female represented in the plate, were given to me by my friend THOMAS M'CULLOCH of Pictou, in Nova Scotia, who procured several others in the winter of 1834. The following account of the affection displayed by one towards its companion, with which he has also favoured me, will be found highly interesting.

"During the winter of 1834, many species of the northern birds were more than usually abundant in the province of Nova Scotia, being driven, no doubt, from their customary places of resort by the cold which was very intense at the commencement of the season. Large flocks of the Loxia Enucleator appeared in every part of the country, while the Fringilla Linaria, of which we had not seen a single specimen for upwards of two years, could be shot at almost any hour of the day, in the streets of Pictou; and we were often told of birds being seen, which from the description we could not recognise as belonging to any species with which we were already acquainted. The first day of the year having proved uncommonly mild, I went out, accompanied by my father, with the expectation of obtaining something new for our collection of birds. We had scarcely left our own door when we observed a small flock alight in a thicket of evergreens a short distance from where we stood. Thinking they were Pine Grosbeaks, we directed the man who was with us to push on and obtain a shot. He did so, and we just arrived in time to pick up a pair of birds which he had killed. One glance was sufficient to shew us that they were not what we had supposed, but a species we had never previously seen or heard of as visiting that portion of the Continent. You, my dear sir, have often enjoyed such moments, and therefore can easily conceive the intense delight with which we surveyed our prize, and how anxiously we watched the progress of the remainder, as they flew to an adjoining thicket, where one immediately disappeared, while the other took its station on the top of a spruce, from which its simple tze tze tze was uttered with the greatest vehemence, as if calling on its companions to hasten from the danger which it had recently escaped. Seeing the bird so very watchful, we made a small circuit with the view of diverting its attention, and at the same time of looking for the one by which it was accompanied, as I conceived it to be severely wounded, from the apparent difficulty of its flight. After a careful examination of the bush we at length observed it upon a low twig, and from its inattention to the calls of its mate, and the cowering position in which it sat, I concluded that it was unable to make another attempt to escape. Giving it an occasional glance, we turned towards the other, which still retained its former station on the top of the spruce, though its uneasiness seemed to increase at every step. While the man was cautiously working his way through the thick alder, in order to get within shot, I carefully examined the bird, which certainly presented a very interesting object. It stood almost as upright as the top on which it was perched, its height being much increased by its long and graceful crest being quite erect, while at the same time its wings were kept in a constant jerking motion, as if in readiness to remove at a moment's notice. Independent of the mere beauty of the bird, there was something deeply interesting in the anxiety for the safety of its mate, so touchingly displayed by the force and rapidity of its simple but affectionate warning. The motion of the alders frightened the bird, and I had the mortification of seeing it rise in the air, as if about to commence a lofty and long-continued flight. Unwilling to give it up, I watched its progress with longing eyes, but at last, when about turning away in despair, it suddenly wheeled about, dashed by with great velocity, gently brushed its companion, and thus by dispelling its stupor induced it to make another effort to escape the danger which threatened its destruction. Though surprised and delighted with this singular display of fidelity and affection, I felt not a little disappointed to see them both about to elude our grasp. The weakness of the wounded bird, however, soon induced it to seek concealment in another thicket, while the other, still faithful to a friend in distress, alighted as formerly on a spruce top, whence it could both see and warn it of approaching danger. As we again drew near, its anxiety seemed to be redoubled, while its notes were uttered with corresponding quickness and energy; but before we could get within reach, it again launched into the air, and made off, calling on the other to follow with all possible speed. After flying for some time, and finding itself unattended, it again returned and alighted on a top near the one it had just left. The opportunity was too good to be lost, and notwithstanding our admiration of this additional instance of its fidelity, we shot it down, affection for its species being the occasion of its ruin. These, my dear sir, are all the observations I was enabled to make upon these interesting birds, during the short and only time they ever came under my notice. From the man I learned that before the first shot they were quite mute, and unsuspicious of danger. Some days after these were obtained, a single one was observed by my father repeatedly to come and sit for a considerable time on some willows at the bottom of our garden, but not being accustomed to the use of a gun, he did not procure it. Whether this was the wounded one or not, we could not tell, but from the affection of the bird for its kind, we thought that possibly it might be that one in search of its lost companions."

BOMBYCILLA GARRULA, European Chatterer, Swains. and Rich. F. Bor. Amer.,vol. ii. p. 237.
BOMBYCILLA GARRULA, Bonap. Syn., p. 438.
BOMBYCILLA GARRULA, Bonap. Amer. Orn., vol. iii. pl. 16.
EUROPEAN WAXEN CHATTERER, Nutt. Man., vol. ii. p. 579.

BOHEMIAN CHATTERER, Bombycilla garrula, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. iv. p. 462.

General colour light greyish-brown, passing behind in ash-grey, before into brownish-orange, of which colour are the forehead, a patch on each side of the throat near the base of the bill, and the feathers under the tail; a band of deep black from the nasal membrane over the eye to the top of the head, where it is concealed by the crest; feathers at the base of the lower mandible and a narrow streak below the eye, white; upper part of throat deep black; feathers of the wings greyish-black; primary coverts largely tipped with white; primary quills with a bright yellow, secondary with a white elongated spot at the end of the outer web, and tipped with oblong wax-red appendages; tail light grey at the base, gradually shaded into deep black, with a broad band of bright yellow. Female similar to the male, but somewhat smaller. Oblong waxen appendages to the secondary quills, varying from seven to three, sometimes wanting, especially in young birds; males with the shafts of the tail-feathers very slightly enlarged at the end, and bright red. Carefully compared with European specimens.

Male, 9 3/4, 16 1/4.

From New York, eastward and northward, to the Fur Countries.

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