Bird news: dark-eyed juncos, American robins, and common grackles

The dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) are back.


The first juncos of the winter came to the feeders on December 12 as a light snow moved south from upstate New York. It’s good to see those roly-poly sparrows with the stick legs once again. Juncos come down from the northern boreal forest to spend winter with us. They are our snowbirds.

According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, juncos are numerous and widespread with a total population of approximately 630 million, and a global breeding population of around 200 million, 81% of which spend some part of the year in the U.S. However, there has been a 1.4% per year decline of dark-eyed juncos from 1966 to 2015, adding up to a 50% decline in junco population for that period of time.


Male dark-eyed juncos are territorial in their northern breeding habitat. In winter, juncos tend to gather in small flocks, flying together at sunrise and sunset, but fanning out to forage for food individually during the day. Juncos exhibit hierarchical behavior at feeding sites, the larger males driving away the younger birds and females. This may be the reason females tend to migrate farther south than males. Anything to get a vacation from those insufferable males. Well, actually the females are probably more intent on not starving to death than in taking vacations. It’s also the case that males stay closer to their breeding grounds up north in order to protect their territory, or to stake out a new claim in the case of the younger males. Females may be more intent on the best food supplies in order to produce the most and best offspring.


Dark-eyed juncos in the eastern U.S. tend to be slate grey with males being darker than females. Birds of New Jersey also mentions an ivory-to-pink bill and white outermost tail feathers, which appear as a white V in flight. The white tail feathers can be observed in the photo above. I have not personally seen the white V in flight, but birds in flight are difficult to observe closely. Also tough to photograph.

In addition to the juncos’ arrival, American robins (Turdus migratorius) were seen in a local park on December 11. It seems they also flew in ahead of the snow. Robins often make short migrations in search of food. They tend to fly high during a migration, so are often unobserved in migratory flight. They travel as far as 200 miles in a day. Unfortunately, I didn’t get photos of the robins. The next day, December 12, they were gone from the park. Perhaps they moved farther south ahead of the storm.

Last Christmas, I bought a small Winter Red winterberry shrub (Ilex verticillata). It was covered with bright red berries, which the birds did not seem interested in eating. Then, one day, the berries were gone. Totally gone.


So this year, the same winterberry bush, now much larger, is once again covered with red berries. I mean to keep an eye on it this year, in the hope of discovering who is eating the berries, and when. I hope it’s the robins.

The robins always come to that same local park because of 2 crabapples trees that are loaded with very small crabapple fruit. It seems that the fruit has to winter over before it is edible for birds. At any rate, those 2 crabapples trees are the star attraction of that park, so far as the robins are concerned. Last spring, I bought 2 Golden Raindrops crabapple trees for my garden, but they didn’t bear fruit last year. Maybe this year. I bought them for the robins, of course.

But back to the juncos. Last winter (2015-2016), I saw 1 junco on November 20, but it disappeared. December was quite warm last year. I didn’t see juncos again until around January 13, and they stayed until early March.

So, this winter (2016-2017), they arrived on December 12, hopefully to stay. We had a dusting of snow that day, which didn’t last long. The high temp for the day was 34° F.

No such luck. The juncos and all the feeder birds disappeared on December 13 and stayed away for several days. There were feathers on the ground around the feeders. I think they were junco feathers. I suspect a black feral cat that we have observed in the area. Drat. I put fencing around a small red cedar tree that is closest to the feeders, hoping to deprive the cat of its nearest hiding place. The birds can still access their roosts in the red cedar, but maybe the fencing will slow the cat down and give the birds a better chance. I also put hardware cloth around the area below the feeders. All the ground feeders, even the large rock pigeons, go inside the hardware cloth enclosure, but they forage outside the circle as well. I’m thinking of putting another larger circle of fencing around the feeders to encompass more of the feeding area. As I have already said, the fencing doesn’t keep cats out, but it slows them down. At least that’s my working hypothesis.

By December 17, in another light snowstorm, the dark-eyed juncos were back. It’s hard to say what makes them come and go in winter. Perhaps predators, or the weather, or better shelter and food in other nearby areas. Above are some photos of the returning juncos. I’ve counted as many as 10 around the feeders at a time. I always laugh when I see those white bellies and stick legs.


The above photo of a junco shows a little of the environment around the feeders. A hemlock in the background. A river birch branch in the foreground. To the right and out of the photo is the small red cedar as well as several large hemlocks and a dogwood. A small neighborhood park is in back of this area.


Other feeder birds came back as well. Above are house finches and a male downy woodpecker on December 17. Chickadees, tufted titmice, and white-breasted nuthatches came back as well. I’m happy about that.

On December 18, a warm front moved in with rain melting the snow, producing a wonderful fog. A flock of blackbirds came to the feeders. Above are photos of common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) that made up most of the flock. They do look rather ominous in the fog with their otherworldly gold eyes, don’t you think. After eating everything available under the feeders, they were gone.





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