If the small island where I live had an official bird, or an official mascot of any kind, it would have to be the dark-eyed junco. They’re everywhere, all the time. And they’re gorgeous.
Where I grew up, we had the slate-coloured variety: all-dark above, all-light below. Not here. Here on the west coast of British Columbia, we have what was once known as the Oregon junco. (Junco classification is fairly complicated, but some years ago most of the different species were lumped under a new banner, the dark-eyed junco. Is there a light-eyed junco? Hmm. Not around here.)
They’re a stalwart visitor in winter; they sing in early spring with their simple liquid trill. They nest here alongside the house in early summer, and are bold as brass when madly foraging seeds and bugs for their babies. I think it’s their tameness that makes them a favourite bird in so many back yards.
Now, when I say they’re here year-round I should add that I’m not entirely sure they’re the same birds. I suspect so. But some of our ‘year-round’ birds are quite likely two entirely different groups, the summer visitors and the winter visitors, each from different places. That seems to be the case with a lot of our robins.
Regardless, they’re singing like mad right now and setting up their territories. Fiesty little things, the males sometimes do heated battle with themselves. Our shiny steel chimney up on the roof is, apparently, a great place for hormone-enraged males to spot identical rival males who mimic their every move and never back down. Likewise our gleaming Japanese plant pots on the deck—I wonder if those poor males ever figure it out. It’s pretty entertaining.
Soon the courtship will advance to the presenting of gifts. Males find bits of grass or straw and offer them to the female, who I’m sure acts suitably impressed—but then goes and finds material of her own. She does all the nest building and all the incubating, though he will stick around to sing nicely. Once the young are hatched, they share feeding and protecting duties equally.
Where we live, we have a problem with deer—they’re hyper-abundant and our forest understorey is in really bad shape. It’s not good for ground-nesting birds like juncos. Fortunately our fenced property seems to be able to house at least a pair or two every year. Last spring they took over a window box, successfully raising young under cover of fuchsia and Japanese forest grass. It was adorable.
We don’t put out seed feeders here, as they attract rats (ew) and they also attract purple finches with conjunctivitis, an awful condition spread at feeders.
But we make an exception for the two or three weeks every winter that we actually get heavy snow. Up the feeders go, and within a day or two the juncos, fox sparrows, chickadees, and towhees are practically vacuuming up the sunflower seeds.
Juncos are well-adapted to cold weather; as soon as the snow flies they go into a hyper-feeding mode and start packing on fat. In other parts of North America they’re strongly associated with winter, and Americans sometimes call them snowbirds (a name that we tend to reserve for snow buntings up here.)
If you’re a beginning bird photographer, you’ll find juncos pretty rewarding. Though small and fast-moving, they tend to relax fairly readily around people and, with a little patience, you should be able to capture a shot while they soak up the sun on a branch.
I wish you luck with your future junco-watching. May your juncos be half as pretty as ours.
Let me brighten your Friday.
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