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Ohio Cold-Weather Residents: A Very Common Sparrow in Disguise.

January 7, 2012

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!

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22 Comments leave one →
  1. January 7, 2012 6:25 pm

    Great photos of the Slate-colored Dark-eyed Juncos. I especially like the last one. it is a real cutie, Tracy. 🙂

  2. John Northcutt Young permalink
    January 7, 2012 7:04 pm

    And I thought Florida was the only state to get snowbirds! Great shots and story as always.

  3. January 7, 2012 7:27 pm

    Another great post! I was noticing the juncos where quite shy this year as well. You did a woderful job getting the photos that you did, their coloring not only makes them hard to spot, but hard to photograph as well.

  4. January 7, 2012 9:43 pm

    Such pretty birds. I love their coloring. So much more interesting than the basic sparrows. As always, great photos and info. Margie

  5. January 7, 2012 10:22 pm

    Thank you! I just saw what I think are a few of these birds below the feeder today. I haven’t had a chance to look at the photos yet to verify, but I’m pretty sure this is spot on. Their beaks and tail feathers were standouts.

  6. January 7, 2012 11:20 pm

    Another of my favorite birds. I’m not looking forward to colder weather, but I know that’s what it’s going to take to get them to my yard. For them, I’ll make an exception.

  7. January 8, 2012 1:58 am

    Very interesting, and lovely images.

  8. January 8, 2012 7:19 am

    Love the photos! These little guys flock on the roads here after the sand trucks go through.
    They also visit my feeders. Thank you for the info. I have admired them for a long time and never knew they were sparrows! They always bring me joy… as they happily flit about. Thanks!

  9. January 8, 2012 9:57 am

    Great pictures.

  10. January 8, 2012 10:46 am

    You definitely can tell the seasons with these cute juncos. I notice that they sometimes joined by the white-throated sparrows. I enjoy the juncos all winter long, but happy to see them head North in the Spring, knowing my warblers will be coming through. Thanks for sharing the beautiful photos.

  11. January 8, 2012 5:07 pm

    I just love the last photo! What a pose!

  12. January 8, 2012 6:07 pm

    You’re blog is a wonderful virtual zoo of wild life. Those sparrows are so cute. I was amazed to read that they’re “one of the most common birds in North America”. That’s fascinating. Thanks for sharing your beautiful photos and info. 🙂

  13. January 8, 2012 6:55 pm

    I love juncos, your description of “suits of neat charcoal gray and pure white” is so apt. Great photos too!

  14. January 9, 2012 1:17 am

    Such cute little birds – I especially like the last one! We have them here in Georgia too, but not as many in recent years. I learned a lot from this post. Thanks, Tracy!

  15. January 9, 2012 8:36 am

    You saved the best shot for last! All these shots are beautiful… They say you learn something new every day – today I learned about countershading and I thank you for the nature lesson.

    When I was little I often heard my mother refer to juncos, but I never took the time to see what bird she was noticing at the feeder. Now I have something to picture in my mind to go along with the name. I love the pink beak!

  16. January 10, 2012 11:16 pm

    Great photos! We also have Juncos here and especially on cold mornings there are several dozen in our feeding area.

  17. January 11, 2012 9:59 am

    I love this! You’re the second blogger to post pictures of these birds that I’ve seen today. I just saw these birds in the park the other day and didn’t have a clue what they were. I love your shots… I’m constantly learning!

  18. January 11, 2012 3:15 pm

    Didn’t know about “countershading”. How cool.

  19. January 13, 2012 3:25 pm

    Thanks W.S….for covering one of my favorite birds…I always say when I see Dark-eyed Juncos for the first time…”They’re Back”…when we lived in Minnesota and now here in Arkansas…they are with us…and they have a beauty all their own…you point out so well…I always wondered in Minnesota…when they would be all around our bird feeders…and it was blowing snow and 20 below…how those little birds could make it…but they do…the good Lord put something in animals to be able to do it…and like you said, fluffing up their feathers sure must help…it seems like they get double their size…thanks again for covering this wonderful bird…and it is beautiful too…thanks W.S.

  20. January 18, 2012 12:28 am

    Your pictures are so amazing!

  21. January 21, 2012 8:06 am

    Hi Tracy. Juncos are a favorite of mine, coming right up to our windows when they visit the feeder. I like your notes on countershading…. Jane

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