Dark-eyed juncos are back at last

Dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) are back at last.

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The first photo of a junco this winter was taken January 13. They may have been back a few days previous. But they were late this year, that’s for sure, probably because of all the warm December weather. I’m pretty sure I saw one during a cold spell in November, but that one didn’t stay around. I wonder if juncos send out scouts before the flock migrates. Juncos tend to return to the same area each winter.

Most dark-eyed juncos (80% of them according to an article in the Summer 2015 Living Bird magazine) spend summers in the boreal forest of North America, most of which is in Canada. The boreal forest constitutes more than 25% of the world’s remaining intact forest. That surprises me. I thought most remaining large forest areas were rain forests. It’s true that Canada has most of the say in how the boreal forest will be developed, or not, but it’s also true that the United States consumes most of the paper products and tar sands mining products that make developing the boreal forest lucrative. I love the juncos, so I’m all for preserving the boreal forest as well as sustainably developing what must be developed. To say nothing about how the loss of the boreal forest would affect climate change.

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Dark-eyed juncos come south to spend winters with us and go north in spring to breed in the boreal forest. They are distinguished by their endearing round shape and distinctive coloring. Dark grey (males) or slate grey (females) on top, and white on the bottom. They look like the toys that always remain upright in the bathtub, as can be seen in the photo above.

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They have pinkish bills and dark eyes that often don’t show up well in photos. They also have white outermost tail feathers, which causes their rather long tails to appear as white V’s in flight. This according to Birds of New Jersey. The white tail feathers can be observed in the photo above as well as in the photo at the top of this post. Juncos have 30% more feathers, by weight, in winter than they do in summer. The junco above certainly has an abundance of feathers. All the better to keep him warm. I guess it’s all those feathers that give juncos that adorable roly-poly look.

Dark-eyed juncos are ground feeders for the most part. They eat insects and seeds and will tunnel under the snow to find weed seeds. They love sunflower seeds, that’s for sure. In the photos above, they seem content to share space under the feeders with white-throated sparrows, house finches, and a northern cardinal.

I think I have evidence of just how much dark-eyed juncos enjoy the snow. On February 16, after 3 days of sub-zero temps, we had an afternoon snowstorm yielding about 3″ of snow. As the snow began in earnest, most of the birds disappeared from the feeders. Not so the juncos. Several of them took over the feeder as if they were playing king of the mountain. I fancied I could see them chuckling with delight over their possession of this prize. Perhaps they are ground feeders because they don’t get along so well with the house sparrows who usually monopolize the feeders, at least at certain times of the day.

You can see the snow falling in these photos. Now don’t you agree that these juncos are in their element and thinking it’s just about perfect. I think so, but who knows for sure. Watching juncos enjoying the snow is a good reason to love winter. Today is February 17. The temps are back above freezing, and the snow is disappearing fast. I hope the juncos stick around anyway.

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