Dark Eyed Junco
On a winter walk, you hear rapid little chipping noises coming from a patch of thickets. Looking closer, you notice several small birds with dark gray backs and white breasts; they have small pink beaks that stand out against their dark heads. When they fly off, you watch them flash white tail feathers. What was that?
You’d be mistaken if you didn’t realize these birds are sparrows. But that’s an easy mistake to make. When we think of sparrows, we tend to think of fairly dull brown birds with perhaps a crown or a stripe over the eye to spruce up their looks. But these are the flashy birds of the sparrow world, with their suits of neat charcoal gray and pure white. And their pink beaks are a fine fashionable touch, I must admit.
These birds are an Ohio cold-weather favorite- Dark-Eyed Juncos. These winter residents are spending the winter in Ohio after raising families during the summer in Canada. They are perhaps North America’s most unusual-looking sparrow, as they eschew those drabber brown feathers that most of their brethren wear. They are flocking birds during the winter, usually feeding on the ground where they search for seeds. In the warm weather they will eat insects, but during this cold season they are seed-eaters, often gravitating towards thickets and brushpiles along the edges of woods. You can spot them at bird feeders and in parks, too, and I’ve seen them snacking on tree buds and such.
I first spotted them on October 15th last year, and they will often stay until April, when they head back north to raise more little Juncos.
These birds often puff out their feathers, so they can look quite round- this helps keep them warm on very cold mornings. They carefully search the ground for food, and will scratch or peck to uncover edibles.
The interesting plumage of the Junco is an example of countershading. This is a type of camouflage that makes it more difficult to notice them upon the ground by counterbalancing the effects of light and shadow. Countershading is also seen in nature in such animals as deer and rabbits- anything with a dark back towards the sun and a light breast towards the ground.
Juncos are rather mild-mannered birds that will sometimes forage with other species. A flock will have a pecking order; from what ornithologists (bird scientists) can tell, it seems that Juncos who have been in a flock longer than others are higher up in the pecking order (sort of a bird seniority rule).
You may notice some differences in coloration between Juncos in a flock. Sometimes this is due to different subspecies mixing together; but it is often due to plumage differences between the sexes. Males tend to be darker gray on their backs, while females tend towards brownish-gray.
Perhaps the most interesting fact about Juncos is that they are a very common bird- one of the most common birds in North America, as a matter of fact. One estimate of their numbers put them at 630 million individuals- that’s a lot of birds! Remember, there’s a lot of land out there, and these little birds can cover vast expanses of woodland and fields, even if we don’t see them as often as we’d think we would. They’re quite successful at adapting to and thriving on our continent.
It took me a while to get some halfway-decent photos of Juncos this year- unlike other birds, for whatever reason they seemed to successfully avoid me for weeks at a time. I was thinking of discussing how shy they were this year, but last week I had the good fortune to be right on the edge of a flock of 2 dozen or so of these neat little birds while they fed on the ground in a local park. I held still, snapping pictures, while they hopped around on the grass not far away. All is forgiven, little fellas, and thanks for the poses!