junco

The dark-eyed junco is a seasonal visitor that many call snowbirds. Except these snowbirds don’t flee for Florida; they land in our area for the winter months.

My daughter-in-law Krista’s favorite bird is the junco. She nearly jumps with excitement when she sees one. I like this. I like her passion for this simple bird.

Her mother-in-law, my Jackie, had the same for the common robin and her favorite duck, the mallard. I think it shows something when a person finds passion and delight with something so common in nature.

I like the junco as well, and both Jackie and I would find delight at the sight of our first of the season, most thrilled if it came on her October birthday.

There are a couple of species of juncos and several subspecies. Juncos in eastern North America are northern nesting birds, choosing open coniferous and mixed hardwood forests. They migrate south for winter where they spend time in small, loose flocks and forage along woody edges, shrubby open areas, and in our backyards under feeders.

Junco names have changed over the years. I grew up calling them slate-colored juncos. At some point field guides would call them dark-eyed or northern juncos. Now most guides refer to the dark-eyed junco with five subspecies, the most common being the slate-colored. I smile, having lived long enough to again call them slate-colored juncos.

Either name, dark-eyed or slate-colored, is most descriptive. It is a small sparrow-size bird with black eyes; and certainly slate-gray in color. Imagine taking an off-white bird by the legs, flipping and dipping it headfirst, halfway, in dark gray paint, wiping off the beak to reveal a pink-white sheen, and you have a slate-colored junco.

Also, brightly revealed with a flit and flutter, are white outer tail feathers on an otherwise all gray tail. The birds are unmistakable with these markings when something startles a small group picking seeds below our feeders and they scatter to nearby bushes.

Unlike chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and raucous blue jays, juncos are quiet foragers in our winter backyards. As many small birds they have a sharp, quick, chip call note, along with a buzzy “tzeet!” Since they nest up north, we are not often treated to their courtship, nest territorial song, which is a soft, loose, trill, reminiscent of our common, summer, chipping sparrow, if not sweeter and more musical.

They begin singing their northern songs as we get closer to their spring breeding season, just prior to their trip back north. It is one of those delightful songs that sort of stops you in your tracks as you are out doing spring cleaning. It is a common song up north, but here in Indiana, we hear it for just a short time as spring days lengthen. It can be as late as mid-April when we enjoy the song one day and then a few days later realize we have not seen a junco for a while.

In December their numbers increase. For me it is probably because I just recently began putting out seed again. With so many seeds and fruits from plants around this old farm and native, restored prairies, there is plenty for seed eaters to find. Come late fall, as I find myself more indoors, I selfishly like to bring birds closer for observation and my enjoyment, and out go the feeders.

“Snowbirds,” many call the juncos. It suits juncos. While I was at Pokagon State Park, we would sometimes refer to our regularly scheduled Sunday morning walk, from mid-October through winter, as a “Junco Jaunt.” We enjoyed all birds and all things nature on this Sunday morning tradition, but in late fall to winter, we might give a special nod to the snowbird.

The winter solstice is a few short weeks away. We note the seasonal changes and the coming holidays by so many signs in nature and family traditions. The junco is back in its simple gray hoodie and pink nose to flit its white-rimmed tail and lead us into winter.

Fred Wooley is a naturalist, writer and land preservation/restoration enthusiast. He lives on part of an old farm overlooking an extensive fen in northern Steuben County. He can be reached at fwooley@frontier.com.

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