Juncos by Kate Crowley

By Kate Crowley
In the last two weeks we’ve seen a “changing of the guard” in our front yard.  Gone are the big flocks of blue jays and chickadees and in their place we have a very large flock of Dark eyed juncos - the so called ‘snowbirds’.  We have also seen robins, a grackle, eastern phoebe, and purple finches, but they have mostly been transitory.  The juncos have settled in for the time being, spending all day foraging on all the spilled corn and seeds that piled up in the layers of snow. 
Members of the sparrow family, they are flighty little birds, wearing somber grey feathers.  In reference to its nickname, its 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 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 and resume feeding. 
The juncos are temporary visitors.  They have been spending winter further south, some in Minnesota. Many of these are the males, who accept the risk of our difficult winters in order to have a better chance in the spring of getting to the best breeding territories first.  For now, they are biding their time, filling up their fat reserves for the journey to the northeastern part of Minnesota and further into Canada where they will nest in the coniferous forests.   
One of the things I love best about juncos is their sweet, twittering calls.  When we go outside on these early spring mornings, the trees are filled with this sound.  It is such a nice change from the chickadees and blue jay calls that we’ve been listening to for the past five months and a precursor to even sweeter songs to come. 
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 on 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 change.
Like any good flocking bird, the Dark-eyed juncos feed, fly and roost together.  This last activity can be lifesaving, especially cold nights.  The birds will generally choose thick stands of conifers where they are well shielded from the wind.  Doing this has been shown to reduce their nightly energy expenditure by 10%.  That is enough 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. 
The juncos are part of the passing avian parade; one that we look forward to each year.  The bluebirds can’t be far behind.    

By the way - the junco name which is a family name in Spain means a reeds or rush - juncos is genus for rush.


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