The Little Snowbird

It was a December morning a few years ago. All was still. It had snowed overnight, and the world seemed to have pulled the blankets up over its head, refusing to wake up. I stood at my window, coffee in hand, taking in the seasonal composition in the yard.

And suddenly they flew in: a large flock of juncos, materializing out of nowhere the way only small birds can. They landed quickly, regulation distance from each other, and got to work hopping and pecking single-mindedly through the snow, looking for the sunflower chips they knew would be there. Birds know me all too well.

No sign of winter lethargy in that crowd. They foraged energetically, dark-hooded heads dipping in the snow, expertly separating the food from the unavoidable chaff. 

And then just as suddenly as they had arrived they took off, white outer tail feathers flashing, scattering in all directions almost simultaneously and allowing the yard to return to its wintry stillness.

Juncos foraging in the snow. That scene made my day.

As it turns out there is a connection between juncos and snow. In John Audubon’s days in the first part of the 19th century, juncos were called snowbirds, and that is still a common name for them in the eastern part of the country. Their migration south across the eastern and central U.S. from their breeding grounds in Canada often coincides with the first snowfall. Audubon would write in “Birds of America,” “there is not an individual in the Union who does not know the little Snow-bird (sic).”

In honor of that history, the scientific name for the dark-eyed junco is “Junco hyemalis”—winter junco.

Dark-eyed juncos are small birds with dark backs, often-darker hoods, lighter bellies and flanks, pale bills and similar songs and calls. A local birder friend sometimes jokingly refers to them as ivory-billed sparrows, a useful way to remember the color of their bill. They are abundant and found over an enormous area, from deep in Canada down to Mexico. They often interbreed and many can either be resident in a locality or migrate—or both. They have been the subject of a decades-long debate among systematists, the scientists who try to untangle the relationships among all life forms. These scientists have described attempts at a taxonomy for juncos as “turbulent” and “a nightmare,” according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

In 1973, in a bold and somewhat controversial move, the American Ornithologists Union decided to lump all species of dark-eyed juncos into one under that name. Research continues, however, so that may very well not be the ornithologists’ last word. 

The dark-eyed junco we see most often in western Washington belongs to the Oregon group. The Oregon has warm rufous sides, a brown back, gray wings and a white belly. Males have a characteristic dark hood; the hood in females and juveniles is gray. The group is generally resident, but some populations may migrate between elevations in search of food. Like all members of their larger family, the New World sparrows, dark-eyed juncos are primarily seed eaters, although their diet includes 50 percent insects during breeding when their nutritional needs change. And if you have a flower garden, don’t cut it back in late fall; juncos will go after the seeds in flowers and even grasses with gusto, and the plants will also provide some shelter.

Juncos often build their nests in protected areas on the ground, but don’t be surprised if you find a nest in a hanging flower basket. While parents may eventually abandon the nest if disturbed, they will not leave once the eggs hatch. They can be prolific parents, with as many as three broods in one season with an average of four eggs to a clutch. I’ve been treated to three broods in my yard every summer the last few years, busy parents feeding their babies what seemed all season long. Baby juncos are uniformly streaked, and they sport those lovely white outer tail feathers early on.

All in all, the junco is a tame little sparrow that we’re fortunate to have in our region year round. So what if you can’t always figure out the subspecies you’re looking at. As Juliet would have said if she had been a birder, “that which we call a junco by any other name is just as sweet.”

Joseph Pentheroudakis is an artist, naturalist and avid birder who writes from Herron Island. 

On the Wing