1 Apr 2021

A Lesson from the Waxwing

Every year waxwings migrate to Japan, where they spend the winter gorging themselves on mistletoe berries. Find out how the win-win relationship between bird and plant means they can always rely on a full crop of berries when they return the following year.

 Bohemian Waxwing © HIH Princess Takamado
Bohemian Waxwing © HIH Princess Takamado
By HIH Princess Takamado

'Through the Lens', Fujingaho Magazine, April, 2021

Click here to view pdf

Photos and text: Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado

English Translation: Asia Club, a WBSJ Volunteer Group (YOKOYAMA Kazuko, KASE Tomoko, Ueno Naohiro)


Recently we have been facing one piece of gloomy news after another, such as the spread of COVID-19 and the subsequent discovery of new variants. Therefore, this time I would like to tell you an uplifting story about waxwings, which are brightly-coloured and popular for their unique appearance. Two species of waxwing, the Bohemian Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus and Japanese Waxwing Bombycilla japonica (Near Threatened), migrate to Japan every winter. The image above is of a Bohemian Waxwing, whose yellow tail tip can be seen clearly. In the two photos of flying birds below, you can see the Japanese Waxwing with its red tail tip. 

The waxwing has a spectacular appearance and is certianly photogenic enough to make a lovely picture. It is also one of the birds that everyone would like to photograph. I used to think it would be easy to find and photograph them, because they often move in flocks. But in fact, it wasn’t. We do have their migration records for the country, but the birds are not very common, and even when we get information that they have shown up in a particular place, they usually move away as soon as they have eaten up the mistletoe berries within a few days. Even when I was lucky enough to come across them, all I could get was either a photo of a dark silhouette of the bird against the blue sky – since they often peck berries on top of the trees – or one out of focus due to the thickly-growing branches.


Japanese Waxwing © HIH Princess Takamado


When I could finally take one, the bird’s face was hard to distinguish, hidden as it was by overlapping brances. After so many repeated failures, at last I succeeded in taking these two photos of waxwings in mistletoe trees in January last year. I expect you will recognize how thickly the branches grow.

On the morning I took the photographs, after hearing news that the flock seemed to have moved away, I was almost about to give up. Nevertheless, after I had waited for an hour, one bird appeared and began to peck the berries. Apparently waxwings display outstanding communication abilities concerning where the food is. After a while, the number of the birds increased to two, and then to three, as if having been called by their friend, and in the end they had become a flock of as many as 12 birds. Just watching them made me feel happy, but even more fortuitously, one of them flew off with berries in its mouth to the spot where there was no branch in the way, allowing me a golden opportunity for photographing. I secretly punched the air in triumph.


Japanese Waxwing © HIH Princess Takamado


Mistletoe and waxwings have a symbiotic relationship. Mistletoe provides waxwings with berries to eat and waxwings, in turn, help to disperse the seeds by carrying them to new locations. Mistletoe has evolved sticky berries to make it easy for the seeds in waxwings’ droppings to adhere to a tree branch. The seeds have obtained ability to germinate on the branch and extend their roots into the bark. We can safely say that the mistletoe has certainly succeeded in getting help from the waxwing. The waxwing, in turn, also benefits from the mistletoe, as it can look forward to a guaranteed supply of food when it returns. It is indeed a win-win relationship.

Looking back on the year 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 established emotional bonds, supported and helped each other. This reminded me that it is natural for human beings to gather, and important for our survival not to be isolated. Particularly now that people are required to refrain from gathering to prevent infection, I hope we can continue to communicate with each other in a mindful way, and, learning from the waxwing's wonderful win-win relationship with mistletoe, sustain and renew our win-win relationship with others toward a prosperous future.


*This text has been translated from the original Japanese. 


Bohemian Waxwing © HIH Princess Takamado