For the Birds Radio Program: Juncoes

Original Air Date: Nov. 9, 1987 Rerun Dates: Nov. 2, 1989

Laura talks about juncoes and why scientists are befuddled with them.

Audio missing


(Recording of a junco)

Snowbirds are all over the Northland now, whether you’re talking about Snow Buntings or juncoes. The bird most commonly known as the snowbird is the Dark-eyed Junco. This species has so befuddled taxonomists that its name has been changed twice in the past 11 years–from the Slate-colored Junco to the Northern Junco to the Dark-eyed Junco, so your bird book may call it any of those. Currently ornithologists consider the Slate-colored Junco to be one race of the Dark-eyed Junco species, which also includes the Oregon Junco, the White-winged Junco, and the Gray-headed Junco. But that may end soon, because the newest trend in ornithology is to split races into closely related species. The four races of juncoes interbreed to a small extent where their ranges overlap, but since the interbreeding isn’t very significant, some ornithologists think maybe they are actually three or four different species, the way the early American ornithologists thought all along. Issues of taxonomy can become philosophical, and some questions of relationships between birds may never be resolved to every ornithologist’s satisfaction, but meanwhile the birds get along just fine. Every bird knows exactly who he is, without bothering about labels. Joel Peters, the ornithologist poet, wrote:

Carolus V. Linnaeus, he played Adam with the birds,
With generic and specific nomenclature.
He labeled all the Aves with resounding Latin words–
But some of them cause arguments with Nature.”

Regardless of what the status of the junco is, the one we get in our listening area is the Dark-eyed Junco. This pretty little bird is unique among the sparrows for its coloration, which is “leaden skies above, and snow below.” That is, it’s dull gray on the back, head, and breast, with a pure white belly. The Junco is one bird that’s easy to identify as it flies away from you—its white outer tail feathers stream out in a lovely V when it takes off in flight.

Juncoes are flocking birds, which sociably allow other sparrows to join their groups, like White-throats, White- crowns, Harris’s, and Fox Sparrows. Most juncoes wouldn’t be caught dead sitting in a feeder–they scratch the ground with both feet to eat seeds and occasional insects. And they’re perfectly happy cleaning up the spilled seed from more messy feeder birds, like grosbeaks and jays, being true Minnesota birds. But some gluttonous individuals actually do sit in feeders and pig out on the thick pile of seeds–most likely these birds are only visitors to Minnesota, spending their winters in Chicago or some other area of big eating and hot passions. Juncoes are one of the few birds other than House Sparrows attracted to grocery-store mixed bird seed. But they also come to plain sunflower seeds, which is what I recommend if you’re only going to set out one kind of bird seed. Even though they feed on the ground, you don’t have to set seed there–Juncoes stay here until deep winter, and once in a while one will stick around the whole season, a tiny ball of warmth in the midst of the frozen Northland.

(Recording of a Dark-eyed Junco) This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the BIrds.”