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Published: October 1, 2015

Things seen in the Bird Division #10: Where did the waxwing go?

Joshua Engel, Research Assistant II, Integrative Research Center

The power of museum collections often comes from volume: with a higher sample size, more can be learned with great precision. But sometimes you can learn a great deal from a single specimen, too.

We recently received a Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) specimen from downtown Chicago via the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors (I also wrote about waxwings here).  The bird had a band on its leg, meaning that some time in the past, a researcher had captured it, put the band on, taken measurements and perhaps a blood sample, and released it. And because we now had that band (called a "recovery"), we could connect the dots from where it was banded to where it died.  Waxwings are notoriously peripatetic, but nonetheless we were amazed to learn that the bird was banded 1600 miles to the northwest of Chicago in Canadian Rockies of British Columbia! It was banded as a young bird, recently fledged, in August 2014. Who knows where it was for the intervening year, or where it would have ended up if a Chicago skyscraper hadn't interrupted its journey.

It turns out, however, that maybe that route isn't so unusual. We tend to think of bird migration as a north-south affair, but some birds have a strong east-west component to their migration. This map of past band recoveries of Cedar Waxwings that were banded in western Canada shows that pretty well--a lot of them migrated southeast from the banding site. Cedar Waxwing S15-2021 now adds another point to that map and tells us a little bit more about the migration of Cedar Waxwings. 

Here's a photo of the bird, now a skeletal specimen after having gone through our dermestid beetle colony. You can see the band still on its tarsus in the upper right corner.