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The first junco. November 23, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about my favorite feeder bird, the little junco.

We’ve had enough nights in the twenties here in our part of Pennsylvania to give the earth a chill. The ground is frozen, and the last green plants are stiff and bent with cold every morning, eventually thawing as the sun warms them. Our friend Ben tells me that the little stream at Hawk’s Haven, Hawk Run, has frozen over, and the container water gardens are circular ice cubes. OFB and Silence Dogood have been keeping busy switching off the water dishes for the chickens, bunny, and outdoor cats to make sure they have unfrozen water to drink, and their comments about carrying the ice-cold bowls of frozen water back to the house don’t really bear repeating here.

But I don’t need to look at the frozen ground, turn on the Weather Channel, hear the report from Hawk’s Haven, or even look at my indoor-outdoor digital thermometer to know that winter has arrived, because yesterday, I saw the first junco at my feeder. (But I confess that my indoor-outdoor thermometer is totally addictive. Thank you, L.L. Bean!) I guess I should say that I saw the first junco on the ground under my feeder, since these little birds prefer ground-feeding to perching on any kind of feeder, though they will fly up to a hopper (cabin-style) feeder or even a tube feeder if they must. Juncos are typically the last birds to arrive at my feeders, bearing winter on their wings. They’re also my favorite feeder birds.

Not that I don’t love the bolder, more colorful birds that arrive before them: the cardinals, bluejays, nuthatches, and woodpeckers. I welcome the new flocks of lovable, talkative chickadees and titmice that join the year-round regulars at the feeders. I love seeing the goldfinches, now in their more discreet winter plumage, jostling with house and purple finches at the tube feeders, and the many types of sparrows (and occasional wren) that come to the cabin feeder. These days, I usually have a mockingbird or two who’ve opted to stick around despite the cold, and there are always a few mourning doves waddling around under the feeders with their big bodies and tiny pinheads.

And of course, I miss the birds who don’t come, too—the towhees and flickers I’ve seen here in years past, but not for the last decade. It feels strange to see bird populations change like that in my lifetime: mockingbirds moving up, towhees moving—where? Is it global warming, pesticide pollution, rainforest clearing, the spread of the suburbs? It could be any or all of those, or even something we just don’t know. No doubt the simple act of setting out birdfeeders affects the mix of birds we see. It’s humbling to think that, given the wealth of scientific tools at our disposal, there is still so much to learn.

But back to my junco. Looking out the window, I see him poking around in a patch of vinca (periwinkle) beneath two tube feeders, sharing space with a female cardinal. Male juncos are such handsome fellows, with their charcoal-grey backs and snowball-white bellies. They are the definition of dapper come to life. The females are more discreet, with brownish backs and white bellies, while the juveniles are streaked. All are about 6 1/4 inches long (compare that with a cardinal’s 8 3/4 inches or a chickadee’s 5 1/4 inches to get an idea of their size).

As with so many bird species, the junco has fallen victim to the ornithologists’ tendency to reclassify every bird that comes within their grasp, often tossing out the beloved and well-known names of species in favor of ugly and/or obscure names and classifications with seemingly no regard whatever to either tradition or the people who actually care about these birds as individuals. (Gardeners, does this sound familiar? Grrrr.) The juncos that visit my feeder were formerly known as slate-colored juncos, which perfectly describes the color of the males’ backs. Now, however, they’ve been lumped with four other species, demoted like poor Pluto from planet status to a mere subspecies of something called the dark-eyed junco, which makes absolutely zero sense unless you’re an ornithologist comparing them to a Mexican species called the yellow-eyed junco. But even slate-colored junco wasn’t their original name. When John James Audubon painted them for his Birds of America, he called the junco “the common snow-bird,” and I still hear people call juncos snowbirds to this day.

Juncos aren’t usually solitary birds. They live in the far north during the breeding season, then make their way down to feeders throughout the U.S. as winter arrives. Typically, they winter in flocks of 6 to 9 birds, though our friend Ben reports much larger groupings at his feeders out in the country. So I assume my lone junco is just scouting out the feeder situation until the rest of his group arrives.

What do juncos like to eat when they visit your feeders? Hulled sunflower seeds, millet, mixed seed, and cracked corn are their favorite foods, according to my favorite book on bird feeding, Birds at Your Feeder by Erica H. Dunn and Diane L. Tessaglia-Hymes (Norton, 1999). This book is a summary of reports from participants in Project FeederWatch, a joint project initiated by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Bird Studies Canada, the National Audubon Society, and the Canadian Nature Federation. Backyard birdwatchers across the U.S. and Canada send data to Project FeederWatch sites to help researchers map the abundance, distribution, behavior, and food preferences of feeder birds through the winter. (You can find out more about Project FeederWatch—and about juncos or any other birds, for that matter—by clicking the link to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on our blogroll at right.)

Are you likely to see juncos at your feeder? In the words of a certain politician, you betcha. According to Birds at Your Feeder, juncos are the most commonly reported winter feeder birds, appearing at 80 percent of feeders. Since they prefer ground-feeding, you might overlook them, at least until it snows, since their dark coloration helps them blend into the winter landscape. I think these endearing little birds are worth looking for, though. Make sure you provide some of their favorite feeder foods (a blend of mixed seed should do the trick, though my juncos also like to congregate under the black-oil sunflower feeders), and don’t be in a hurry to clean up spilled seed, or you may be denying your juncos their dinner.

These handsome little birds are weathermen in their own right. Just as the juncos’ arrival tells you that winter isn’t far behind, their departure for the north and their breeding grounds lets you know that spring is coming. But much as I can’t wait to see winter give way to spring, I always hate to see the juncos leave. I miss their dapper little gatherings, where the groups of males look for all the world like Victorian gentlemen at their club or at a dinner party, dressed to the nines in their black swallowtail frock-coats and snowy white shirts. All the juncos are missing are top hats!