For the Birds Radio Program: Juncoes

Original Air Date: Dec. 8, 1995

Today Laura Erickson talks about one of Henry David Thoreau’s favorite birds. 3:27

Audio missing


Astronomers, as always, are behind the times, thinking it’s still autumn when any fool can see that it’s winter. Most sensible sparrows have disappeared for the season, gone south where they can count on the snow cover melting at least occasionally, to reveal the spilled fruits of summer slumbering on the forest floor. But fortunately, for those of us who need them, a few optimistic juncoes are still hanging around, trusting us to keep our feeders filled, trusting their feet to keep scratching away what snow covers up their food supplies, and trusting their metabolic energy reserves to set them a-shivering whenever their muscles need heating up. The only reward they get for sticking out the winter is a head start on the best territories come spring, and aptly, many juncoes that overwinter in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin are adult males, driven by testosterone more than brain, perhaps, but pleasant company nonetheless.

Juncos are nicknamed snowbirds, and they make a pretty contrast with new fallen snow. Thoreau described juncoes as leaden skies above and snow beneath, which pretty much sums them up except for the very features I most treasure. The pink beak is exactly the right size–not too big to waste heat nor yet too small and wimpy to shell all manner of small seeds. Junco beaks are busy this time of year–they spend most of their ground-feeding time mouthing their food, but being polite little birds never chew with their beaks too wide open.

Juncoes have three or four white outer tail feathers. When sitting, we see the white edge, and when they fly, these delicate streamers flare out to lovely perfection. The darkest juncoes have almost black facial feathers that theoretically camouflage their dark eyes, but their bright intelligence and good humor shine right through. The morning after this year’s Thanksgiving weekend snow storm, a flock of juncoes gathered to feed beneath my spruce trees, where I had trampled down some snow and covered the ground with seeds. When they had eaten their fill, most of them roosted in branches on the sunny side of the spruce stand, but one little guy who wanted protection from the wind sat inside one of my boot prints in the deep snow, peeking out occasionally, his eyes sparkling with life.

Juncoes are less picky than other feeder birds, just as happy to dine on cheap grocery store seed as more expensive sunflower. And they don’t put on airs or like being raised up on a pedestal-­ they prefer their meals right on the ground. If they come to feeders at all, it’s usually on the platform ones, but once in a while a junco will sit on a hanging or roofed feeder. I’ve never heard of a junco taking suet–they do eat some insects during spring and summer, but overall they’re strict vegetarians. They’re fond of white millet, so when juncoes are afoot in the neighborhood, I scatter millet on the ground especially for them. It’s really an investment in my future–if the meek do one day inherit the earth, I want them to remember me.