A couple weeks ago someone reported that they had seen the first flock of Dark-eyed Juncos in their yard. This is a bit early for these so called ‘snowbirds’. Members of the Sparrow Family, they are flighty little birds, wearing somber grey feathers. In reference to the nickname, their plumage has been described as “leaden skies above, snow below”. The males have a dark grey head and neck; while the back and tail feathers are a slate color (they are also known as Slate-colored juncos). Females tend to be more of a brownish grey on their back. Both genders have conical shaped, pale pink bills, a dark brown eye and white bellies; their only bit of extravagance is their outer white tail feathers, which flash when they fly up. These tail feathers may help the flock locate one another and stay together. As easily as they disperse, so do they settle back down on the ground.
They have been spending the summer up in Canada, and like some Minnesotan’s, (whom we call ‘snowbirds’) they go south for the winter. One of the things I love best about juncos are their sweet, twittering calls. When we go outside in the early morning, the trees are filled with this sound. It is such a nice change from the chickadees and blue jay calls which we will be our main bird sound for the next five months.
Juncos are found in all of the lower 48 states and a recent estimate set their total population around 200 million. There was a time when the Juncos were thought to be four different species, but it has since been determined that they all belong to just one – the Dark-eyed. They can be divided into four forms, which include differences in plumage color and geographic locations. The Oregon, Grey-headed, and White-winged are all found in the western
half of the country. This was one of those cases where the ‘listers’ among bird watchers were disappointed by the new classifications, because it reduced their official lists by three, although any truly interested birdwatcher enjoys looking for these variations just as much as they did before the change.
Like any good flocking bird, the Dark-eyed juncos feed, fly and roost together. This last activity can be lifesaving, especially on cold nights. The birds will generally choose thick stands of conifers where they are well shielded from the wind. This has been shown to reduce their nightly energy expenditure by 10%. That is enough to reduce 1.3 hours of feeding time the next day.
The flocking behavior also gives each individual a slightly better chance of survival when the Sharp-shinned Hawk swoops down out of the sky. As the little birds scatter they cause confusion for the hunter and thereby have more of a chance to escape. The Sharp-shinned remains in our neighborhood and when I look out the window and see no birds moving around at all, I know it has been or is nearby.
Juncos are mainly seed eaters, and will scratch through snow or leaves in search of spilled corn, weed seeds or any other wild bird seeds they can find beneath our bird feeders. They closely observe gray squirrels, having learned that these rodents often leave small bits of food from their scavenging. So when you fill your bird feeder with a spread a little on the ground to help the Juncos.
The Juncos are part of the passing avian parade; one that we look forward to each year. During each winter’s Cornell Lab of Ornithology Project FeederWatch, they invariably rank among the top three most frequently reported back-yard birds
By Kate Crowley