For the Birds Radio Program: The Snowbird

Original Air Date: Oct. 27, 1989

Recast from November 21, 1986. (3:05), Date confirmed

Audio missing


(Recording–Anne Murray’s “The Snowbird”)

One of the birds visiting Northland feeders the last few weeks is the snowbird–otherwise known as the junco.

The Dark-eyed Junco is a little dark gray bird related to sparrows with a white underside and white outer tail feathers–when it flies away these white streamers are conspicuous. It scratches on the ground for weed seeds, including a lot of ragweed seed, so should be a favorite with anyone afflicted with hay fever. In backyards, it usually doesn’t spend too much time inside feeders–it mainly picks up the spilled seed on the ground.

The junco is one of the most abundant birds in the Northland every April and October. By now, most of the females have flown further south for the winter–many to tropical Minneapolis. They’re considered rare up here during the dead of winter, although most years at least a few remain at feeders December through February. They are fairly tame, and once a flock becomes comfortable at a feeding station they sometimes lose their normal caution. In my yard in fall, juncoes are the victims of neighborhood cats more than any other species.

Although they are very fond of sunflower seeds and cracked corn, juncoes also like the inexpensive mixtures of birdseed available at most grocery stores. They are inquisitive enough to discover food in odd places. I have a few juncoes that spend their mornings right on my front porch, eating cracked corn that I set out where my kids can watch them easily.

Unlike chickadee flocks that seldom spend more than ten or fifteen minutes at a feeder before moving on to the next stop, juncoes often spend their whole day in a single yard. At night they roost in a small flock on the ground beneath a dense evergreen tree or shrub, or low in its branches. They hold very still and are silent, so they seldom attract predators even though they would seem quite vulnerable.

In the daytime, they flick their white tail streamers often–it’s apparently an aggressive display. Many ornithologists also believe that predators focus on the conspicuous white streamers–if, say, a sharp- shinned hawk swoops at a junco, it may end up with its talons full of tail feathers, but no junco.

Although most juncoes leave our area in winter, they do start returning in February, when they begin singing their territorial song.

(Recording of a Dark-eyed Junco)

The junco gets its name from the Latin word juncus, which means a reed or rush–it’s an odd name for a bird that seldom lives near marsh vegetation. “Snowbird” is far prettier, and more appropriate, too.

(Recording of “Snowbird”)

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