Of Dark-eyed Juncos

I have previously called the Dark-eyed Junco “my first love” in this blog. I mention in the “About” section that my first sighting of them just over three years ago jump-started my birdwatching hobby. At the time, I was in my second year of graduate school. I liked to write in the family room, which overlooked the backyard garden. A glance over my laptop granted me some time to take a mental break. On a gray mid-afternoon I watched my father clear away long dried grasses from a patch by the deck. Not long after he finished, close to dusk, I noticed little dark blobs moving on the patch he had cleaned. I took a closer look and saw that they were birds. A flock of a dozen juncos were foraging. They pecked at the dirt, and pecked and pecked, tossing aside curled leaves with their bills. They pecked until the daylight nearly faded away. For the next few days, the flock returned to the same patch on time – one hour before dusk. The number of seeds they foraged for seemed to be infinite.

One day, they didn’t come back. I raked away grasses and leaves from another garden patch. As soon as I was done and went inside the house, the juncos appeared. They continued pecking.

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Dark-eyed Juncos are members of the sparrow and bunting family. They are dark gray with white bellies and pink bills. Their white outer tail feathers flash as they take flight – a warning flag for themselves and other birds. Juncos are faintly sexually dimorphic. The females are slightly less gray, having a tinge of brown.

(Note: The junco I write about is the Slate-colored subspecies. Altogether, there are up to fifteen subspecies. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, there are “six forms are easily recognizable in the field[…and…]two widespread forms of the Dark-eyed Junco: ‘slate-colored’ junco of the eastern United States and most of Canada, which is smooth gray…; and ‘Oregon’ junco, found across much of the western U.S., with a dark hood, warm brown back and rufous flanks. Other more restricted variations include the slate-colored-like ‘white-winged’ and Oregon-like ‘pink-sided’ juncos of the Rockies and western Great Plains; and the Yellow-eyed Junco-like ‘red-backed’ and ‘gray-headed’ juncos of the Southwest.”)

The Dark-eyed Junco’s song consists of a short, single phrase of trills. It can be difficult to distinguish from that of the Chipping Sparrow and the Pine Warbler. (Just this past April I almost turned a junco into a Pine Warbler – a bird I rarely see or hear – if I didn’t find the actual source of the singing.) When juncos want to express aggression and caution, they let out a series of twittery “kew” notes as they fly away.

Dark-eyed Juncos breed in the forests of Canada. They live all year long in the very north of the United States. Come winter, they spend the colder months in Northern Mexico and all over the U.S. They are one of Westchester County’s winter birds, arriving in October and departing in late April.

The Dark-eyed Junco is a perfect example of the sort of bird that once you take notice of it, you can’t stop seeing it. You can find them in suburban backyards, parks, forests, college campuses, and fields – any brush-filled habitat. Merriam-Webster dictionary states “junco” comes from the Spanish word junco – meaning “reed” – which is derived from the Latin word juncus of the same meaning.

If you have a feeder, juncos will show up. They even forage on roadsides; I sometimes flush them while driving. Like chickadees and titmice, they are common enough for birdwatchers quickly take note of and divert their attention elsewhere. Over the past three years of the Great Backyard Bird Count (as far as I’ve participated), the Dark-eyed Junco has appeared on the “Top 10 most frequently reported species” and the “Top 10 most numerous species” lists. In 2016, they appeared as #1 in the former Top 10 list (beating the Northern Cardinal, who had been #1 the previous two years). I observe hundreds of juncos every winter. During the last year’s Peekskill Christmas Bird Count, I counted up to 600 in Ossining, thus earning a look from the compiler. Sometimes I see them on Christmas cards, like cardinals and chickadees.

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2014-2015, my first winter of backyard birdwatching, was very snowy. Several inches of snow constantly coated the ground in January and February. Because I provided seeds and suet, the backyard birds visited daily from dawn to dusk, juncos included. Some would stay under the finch socks to eat nyjer seeds the goldfinches dropped. They occasionally got into tiffs with the white-throated sparrows, ensuing in confrontational jumping or three-second chases.

Some juncos would hop all around the deck, scavenging for scattered seeds half-sunken in the snow. I was amused at the number of tracks they left. The scene looked cheerful whether it was sunny or overcast. They even hopped right up to the backyard door. They never noticed my movement even when I was only inches away. I could see their eyes when they were that close. When they were farther away, they seemed eyeless because their beady black eyes blended with their dark gray plumage.

I had attached a suet cake to the tree next to the finch socks. A couple juncos attempted to stand atop the cage. It was impossible for them to reach the suet when they bent their necks. They also tried hovering in front of the cage for a few seconds. Their wings fluttered desperately, then they would to drop to the ground. The energy wasn’t worth it. Luckily, the nuthatches and red-bellied woodpeckers’ messy pecking often caused chucks to fly down. But the juncos couldn’t help but want attain the suet themselves.

When heavier snow fell, the juncos were one of the few species to visit. I had to go outside multiple times throughout the day to sprinkle handfuls of seeds on the railing. They couldn’t afford to search and only hope for food. I heard their twittering “kews” from the bushes around me. Once they heard the backdoor shut, they flew to the railing and perched like swallows on a wire. They looked like dark gray pom poms. They only moved to pick up seeds. They didn’t leave till darkness settled.

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