There exists a familiar feathered friend that all of us generally observe each spring and each fall, but normally never in between these two periods of time.
A common looking bird, not very distinct looking, and not vociferous in any way. What this bird represents to most people with an eye to the calendar and an interest in phenology, is that the dark-eyed junco is an avian
harbinger, to be sure.
In October and November, and in late winter-early spring, juncos converge on the northland and occupy the ground below our bird feeders, sometimes in surprisingly large flocks.
It's an annual event, this influx of migrating juncos, and their arrival precedes the green-up and true warmth of springtime as well as Old Man Winter's unwelcome appearance.
You might recall my recounting the enjoyable experience I had last November with a large flock of feeding juncos while I hunted deer from inside a nylon hunting blind erected in the middle of a prairie field. I became surrounded by a large flock of juncos and a few scattered song sparrows mixed in. It surprised me when the flock descended from seemingly nowhere and alighted onto the hard-packed snow within the tangles of the waving big bluestem grass.
At first I thought the birds were simply there for the shelter the grass afforded them, but I quickly discovered the real reason - food.
Soon after the flock had settled, every bird began in earnest to forage on the seed heads of the swinging grass. In some instances stalks were already laying horizontal on the snow and provided ready access to the seeds contained inside the heads, and in other instances birds hopped and flew to reach vertical seed heads to momentarily perch on the undulating grass-stems, where they quickly struck seeds with lightning strikes of their beaks.
Both species of birds fed side by side, as they expertly husked grass-seeds with their tongues and beaks, hulls flying out of their mouths, and consumed the nutritious seeds.
Dark-eyed juncos breed and nest further north than even northern Minnesota. A mid-latitude sparrow, scores of these handsome and sleek species of bird return each spring to most of Alaska and all of Canada to breed and nest.
A true "snowbird," these six-inch birds show up each year prior to winter's arrival and before spring truly begins. For the most part, juncos are primarily seed eaters, in fact over 75 percent of their diet consists of seeds.
During the nesting season, insects are consumed at a higher rate, mainly for feeding hungry nestlings, but also because insects are so abundant, easy to capture, and are an important source of protein for their growing offspring and for putting on fat reserves for eventual migration.
Unlike most songbirds, juncos tend to be ground nesters, although they will occasionally nest in trees and shrubs. The female junco performs all nest-building duties and takes great care to get it just right. Using her beak to weave fine grasses and other plant material, she uses her body to shape a custom-fitted nest-bowl. Anywhere from three to six eggs are laid and up to three broods are raised each nesting season.
Just recently after feeding the birds at my backyard feeding station, a flock of juncos converged from the surrounding woodland and wetland. So sudden was their arrival that it surprised me, as the noise of their beating wings and call-notes filled the cool morning air with practically the only sounds.
As I stood quietly and watched them, the birds, on the ground, began
pecking with their beaks and scratching with their feet through leaf litter for tidbits that only their eyes could see. And only when I moved ever so slightly did the birds flush and scatter. When I returned to the house and later looked through the window, the whole flock was back again, some even on top of the platform feeder, but most were on the ground contentedly feeding.
Dark-eyed juncos might be considered by some people as one of those nondescript species of bird unworthy of garnering much excitement. Indeed, the little sparrow is one of the most abundant species of birds on the continent. That withstanding - their commonality aside - the sweet little junco is as delightful and welcoming a bird as they come, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.