Posted by: atowhee | December 24, 2007

Bird of Winter: Junco hyemalis

deju.jpgMale Dark-eyed Junco of the Oregon race.  Photo by Ken Benjamin.

This pert little sparrow often shows his snow-white tail stripes. Juncos are especially visual we when the bird flies or makes its frequent, nervous, scissor-like tail moves.  The Junco’s a forest bird during breeding season, nesting across the evergreeen forests of Canada plus the northwestern and northeastern U.S. In winter the Junco can be found almost anywhere in America. From my childhood in southern MIssouri I remember the Junco as strictly a snow-bird.  They would show up at my mother’s feeders onoly when the ground was covered by snow.  The dark head and the white beak made the little Juncos a striking seldom visitor.  They reminded me of the north woods as I’d read about it in the books by Helen Hoover.

The sturdy little Junco, with its obvious ability to survive in the coldest winter weather I knew, was the perfect northwoods bird in my mind’s eye.  The cold, dark forest floor of tall pines would be a perfect home for the little bird who liked best to feed on the seeds that fell onto the snow.  I could only imagine a tall pine.  The evergreens we had in the Ozarks were red cedar and they rarely got over thirty feet tall. The Junco was a messenger from a strange and wilder woods than the ones I knew.

Juncos have long been favored by researchers, being used in a variety of tests and experiments for nearly a century.  The Junco was there for the pioneering research into how birds respond to the length of daylight.  Says the BNA, “This work initiated many decades of research that has contributed greatly to our understanding of the avian annual cycle.  Other areas of fruitful experimental study have been neurobiology of song, social structure and dominance, anti-predation behavior, brain and associated functions, migration and winter distribution, fitness effects of hormonal manipulation, winter physiology, and population biology.”

We get primarily our namesake Juncos: Oregon Juncos in Oregon.  That particular sub-species has the dark head that’s distinctly separate from the gray back and white chest. The Juncos here in Ashland are probably Alaskan visitors I’m told.  No wonder they find our occasional sub-freezing mornings just right for a group feast.  They show up at dawn and feast all day. Neither rain nor light snow discourages their gourmandizing. An occasional squirrel foray may send them fluttering up into the trees, gray and white semaphores in the air.  But soon they’re back on the feeders and on the ground, which is where they seem to like it best.  They eat a lot of small insects and invertebrates in summer and feed their young almost exclusively on such high-protein food, but in winter they become seedaholics. They eat anything from black sunflower seeds to cracked corn.  Not only are they gregarious, when I go into the garden one or two will join the chickadees or Red-breasted Nuthatch in scolding me.  The Junco’s call then is a two-note  “tik-tik, tik-tik.”

Perhaps the most joyful thing about the Junco is not its bouncy behavior or its hearty ability to just settle into a mound of seeds and feed until driven off by the competition or a jay.  The best thing: BNA says they may be over 600-million Juncos in North America.  Finally, a creature that can hold its own against inhumane but human onsalught of parking lots and greenhouse gases.  Long may the Junco thrive!


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