No, I’m not writing from a beach in the tropics (though I wish I were), so I’m not talking about folks from the North heading my way in winter. I like to head south in winter, too, and I’m tired of the white blanket outside my window. My snowbirds are real birds. The kind that fly with their own wings.
Juncos. They’re pretty — dark gray on top with snow-white bellies. They come in flocks and stay the winter. One day in late fall, when the temps take a plummet or the first snow falls, they simply show up en masse at our feeders. In the past they have crowded around our main feeder with its mix of seeds, and they’ve had to share with the cardinals and sparrows, the titmouse and doves. I didn’t pay much attention to them until this year when they started to annoy me. It’s all about bossiness.
Last summer I bought a thistle sock to try to attract goldfinches. It worked. A few days after hanging the sock in the snowball tree I spotted a couple of bright yellow male goldfinches swinging and eating. I was thrilled. Then it rained and the goldfinches disappeared. I talked with an ornithologist friend who said the sock probably got soaked from the rain and the thistle mildewed. So I bought a wire thistle feeder so the seed could dry out after the rain or snow. Gradually, my goldfinches came back. And that’s when the trouble with the juncos started.
It seems that juncos like thistle, too. Most of the other birds don’t bother with this feeder, but the juncos have put themselves in charge. They’re aggressive toward the smaller male goldfinches and run them away from the feeder. They’re aggressive toward each other, too. A bossy little bunch. So, I’m waiting for them to leave.
I suppose, too, that I’m looking forward to their departure because it will be, finally, a signal that spring is here. Meanwhile, I’ve been doing a little research in an effort to find something fun or interesting about them. I’ve learned that, like everything else in nature, the juncos are just doing what juncos were meant to do.
1) They breed farther north in the spring and come down to our area in the winter. Studies have shown that these birds tend to return to the same area every year. They apparently love ground feeders — created by making a flat platform or simply spreading cracked corn on the ground.
2) They are programmed to be bossy. Once a winter flock arrives, the members decide amongst themselves who is going to be top bird and this social hierarchy remains all winter. In addition to the one top bird, everyone else gets ranked as well from the second-ranked bird on down.
3) This behavior is often obvious at the feeder and, if you watch long enough, you can tell who’s in charge. Apparently, there are occasional fights in the flocks, but I have not yet witnessed this behavior.
4) Snowbirds talk to each other in a variety of sounds, depending on whether they are arriving, leaving, or arguing about the politics of the flock. Though I recognize the songs of many birds, mostly the ones that fill our trees in summer, I don’t have a clue to the language of the juncos.
5) Although there’s only one species — the dark-eyed junco — the bird’s plumage varies in different areas of the country. Male juncos that hail from the East (my birds) are slate-colored with snowy bellies; the females are browner. There are Oregon juncos and Rocky Mountain juncos and birds from the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming, all with slightly different colorings and markings.
So, as interesting and pretty as they are — especially in the snow — I’m waiting for the juncos to sniff spring in the air. At some point they will start to chase each other and flash their tail feathers and the males will spend a lot more time singing pretty songs, a sure sign that the breeding season is approaching.
Then…one day I will look out the window and they will be gone.
I hope by then the goldfinches have their pretty yellow feathers and can easily take charge at the thistle feeder.
The book by my window — The Bird Feeder Book: An Easy Guide to Attracting, Identifying, and Understanding Your Feeder Birds by Donald and Lillian Stokes