It's Dark-eyed Junco Season
Here to stay is the new bird
Hello friends, and welcome to another issue of Mouse and Minnow. This week we're sticking with the winter theme and celebrating a little migratory bird of North America who is best known for appearing with the snow...
The Snow Birds
Does the storm push them onward,
Or do they pull the winds along,
White flashes of their tails
A beacon for the heavy clouds to follow?
Backs grey as winter sky,
Bellies bright as fallen snow,
Whether they are driven or take the lead
The result is the same;
They arrive as a blizzard.
One or two bold flakes appear before the rest
Noted on a calendar, in a phone call,
The first of the season.
Then one night, while you sleep,
The white descends out of the dark
Like stardust coming down to earth
And in the morning
Through the frosty pane,
You see the turning of the earth laid bare;
The juncos have arrived.
~ Marilyn Anne Campbell
Meet the Juncos
I don't remember noticing Dark-eyed Juncos hopping around under the stately bird feeder my father made for the backyard of the house where I grew up, but I have no way of knowing if that's because they really didn't come to visit or because at that time I, like so many others, simply lumped the sight of their little grey backs into the general category of "sparrow" while flashier visitors like the Northern Cardinals drew my eye and stuck in my memory.
Dark-eyed Juncos are indeed a type of sparrow and are found across much of North America at some time of the year. But their looks vary widely depending on where you live. Here on the eastern side of the continent we mostly have the slate-coloured version described in the poem: grey heads and backs, white bellies, white edges on their otherwise grey tails, a little pink beak and, of course, those all-black eyes. (The overall effect is of a sweet little round bird; compare this to the intense vibe of the Yellow-eyed Juncos of Mexico and the very southern U.S.). To the west, however, variations include the tan-bodied and black-hooded Oregon form, along with the self-describing pink-sided, grey-headed, red-backed, and white-winged forms (the last having white wing bars, not completely white wings).
No matter what they look like, Dark-eyed Juncos are primarily ground feeders, preferring to hop around on the forest floor or leave their tiny tracks in the fresh snow as they search for fallen seeds. During the breeding season they also add insects to their own diet and feed the same to their young. You can watch two juncos feeding their nestlings and keeping the nest clean of waste in this YouTube video, which spans 30 minutes of time compressed down to seven.
The Snow Birds
There are lots of people who associate Dark-eyed Juncos with winter because many of the birds breed in the less human-populated northern parts of the continent then head south to spend winter in the places where we have built our cities and suburbs. Numerous articles and videos about Dark-eyed Juncos mention a fascinating tidbit about that migration—apparently on at least the eastern part of the continent, females tend to migrate further south than the males which means that depending on where people live, the make-up of the flocks they see could be nearly all male, nearly all female, or a true mix.
I was hoping to find the original source on this for more info and maybe something mappable, but the best I've found is the Range/Migration section of this BorealBirds.org profile which says "winter junco flocks are 20 percent female in Michigan and 72 percent female in Alabama." Since Southern Ontario is just a horizontal map-hop from Michigan, I'm going to assume that around 80% of the Dark-eyed Juncos in our local park are males who are hankering to get back north as fast as possible and claim a good breeding territory as soon as spring arrives.
Watch Lesley the Bird Nerd's excellent “Dark-eyed Juncos — Fun Facts about their Winter Habits” on YouTube for more:
Juncos may go unnoticed by many casual observers, but their adaptability has caught the eye of researchers who are trying to learn more about populations of juncos who are changing their migration and nesting habits to take advantage of the opportunities provided by human cities. Read about the project and how individuals are being asked to help on NestWatch.org.
Not enough scientific research for you? Check out The Junco Project which features Ordinary Extraordinary Juncos, "a science film for public and student audiences" from Indiana University Bloomington. (Here's a YouTube trailer for a taste).
Wondering how climate change will affect juncos? Use Audubon's Climate Vulnerability tool on their Dark-eyed Junco profile to explore how the range of the birds may be impacted.
I usually like to link to other poems or creative pieces if I find them, but the two top poems that came up in my searches were both about dead juncos who had flown into windows. Instead of those, here's a link to BirdSafe.ca which has great information on the steps you can take to help prevent window strikes at home or at work.
And finally, enjoy the pew-pew sounds of a Dark-eyed Junco Sing-Off on YouTube:
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