Birds

A lesson from the waxtail

“Through the Lens,” Fujingaho Magazine, April 2021

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Photos and text: Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado

English translation: Asia Club, a WBSJ volunteer group (YOKOYAMA Kazuko, KASE Tomoko, Ueno Naohiro)

Recently we saw gloomy news after another like the spread of COVID-19 and the subsequent discovery of new variants. So this time I want to tell you an uplifting story about waxwings, which are colorful and popular for their unique appearance. Two species of waxwings, the Bohemian waxwing, Bombycilla garrulus and the Japanese waxwing, Bombycilla japonica (Near Threatened), migrate to Japan every winter. The picture above shows a bohemian waxwing with the yellow tip of its tail clearly visible. In the two photos of birds in flight below, you can see the Japanese waxwing with its red tip of its tail.

The waxwing has a spectacular appearance and is certainly photogenic enough to make a beautiful picture. It’s also one of those birds that everyone would love to photograph. I used to think it would be easy to find and photograph them because they often move around in herds. In fact, it wasn’t like that. We have their migration records for the country, but the birds are not very common, and even when we get information that they have appeared in a certain location, once they have eaten the mistletoe berries within a country, they usually move away for a few days. Even if I was lucky enough to come across them, I could only get a photo of a dark silhouette of the bird against the blue sky – as they often peck berries on the trees – or one that has twigs growing densely due to the blurring.

When I finally got one, the bird’s face was hard to distinguish, hidden by overlapping branches. After so many repeated mistakes, I finally managed to get these two photos of waxtails in mistletoe trees last January. I assume you will realize how thick the branches are growing.

In the morning I took the photos, after hearing the news that the herd appeared to have moved away, I almost gave up. Still, after waiting an hour, a bird appeared and started pecking the berries. Apparently waxwings show excellent communication skills regarding where the food is. After a while the number of birds rose to two and then to three, as if their friend had called them, and in the end they became a flock of up to 12 birds. Even as I watched them I felt happy, but even happier one of them flew with berries in his mouth to where there was no branch in the way, which gave me a golden opportunity to take pictures. I secretly struck the air in triumph.

Japanese waxwing © HIH Princess Takamado

Mistletoe and waxwings have a symbiotic relationship. Mistletoe provides berries to waxwings to eat, and waxwings, in turn, help distribute the seeds by carrying them to new places. Mistletoe has developed sticky berries so that the seeds in the waxtail droppings stick easily to a branch. The seeds have been given the ability to germinate on the branch and expand their roots into the bark. We can safely say that mistletoe has certainly managed to get help from the waxwing. The waxwing, on the other hand, also benefits from mistletoe, as it can look forward to a guaranteed food supply when it returns. It is a win-win relationship indeed.

Looking back on 2020, it was a very inspiring year for me as I was often moved by the way people acted in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even in such a difficult situation, they made emotional bonds, supported and helped one another. This reminded me that it is natural for people to congregate and that it is important that our survival is not isolated. Especially now that people don’t have to gather together to prevent infection, I hope that we can continue to communicate mindfully and learn from the wonderful win-win relationship of the wax wing with mistletoe, and maintain and renew our win-win situation Relationship with others towards a prosperous future.

* This text was translated from the Japanese original.

Bohemian waxwing © HIH Princess Takamado

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