For the Birds Radio Program: Junco--the Snowbird

Original Air Date: March 23, 1988

Laura talks about juncos, that are everywhere right now.

Duration: 3′52″


(Recording of Anne Murray-“The Snowbird”)

One of the earliest birds to return to the Northland each spring is the snowbird, also known as the junco. These hardy little sparrows often come in on the first warm March wind, and stick it out through the worst April fool storms nature can conjure up.

Juncoes are the easiest sparrows to identify. Their backs and heads are slate gray or solid brown, and beneath their tummies are pure white–described somewhat romantically as “leaden skies above, snow below.” Even as they fly away juncoes can be recognized–when their tail fans out, the outer white feathers show up like two white streamers. They’re bigger than chickadees, weighing in at about 1/2-3/4 of an ounce–about the same as three or four quarters.

Juncoes are ground feeders, and unlike most Northland birds seem to like grocery store bird seed mixes just fine. They also are especially fond of cracked corn. They eat sunflower seeds in great quantities, too, so I always recommend that if you buy only one kind of bird seed, make it sunflower. Juncoes and other sparrows pick up spilled seed beneath feeders, often scratching on the ground to pick up hidden seeds. It’s very important to keep old seeds raked up after the freezing weather ends each year. The warmth and moisture of spring allow many kinds of disease organisms to flourish in old seed shells, and ground feeders are the most vulnerable.

Juncoes are hardy birds, breeding as far north as the limits of the tree line in northern Alaska. Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin are technically within their summer range, but except in remote coniferous forests they aren’t very common this far south. Daylight is the stimulus that awakens their mating behavior–they have been artificially stimulated to begin singing and breeding in sub-zero conditions in a laboratory by artificially lengthening day length. Juncoes occasionally strike up meaningful relationships with White- throated Sparrows, and there are quite a few records of interbreeding between the two species. That’s part of the evidence scientists use to classify them as closely related, explaining why they are usually placed near one another in field guides. It’s possible that females, exposed to both songs from the time they’re in the egg, get the songs mixed up. Juncoes have a sweet trill.

(Recording of a Junco)

White-throated Sparrows have a melodic whistle.

(Recording of a White-throated Sparrow)

Junco nests are usually built on the ground at the edge of clearings or even right on a roadside. In late March when their migration peaks, drivers often spot huge flocks of juncoes flying up from rural roadsides, their white tail streamers beckoning for a long distance as they fly away.

(Anne Murray)

That was Anne Murray, this is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”