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A Bird in Hand

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A Bird in Hand

Thinking snowbirds? Meet the dark-eyed Juncos

Hey, can anyone out there sing Snowbird by Anne Murray? If you can, you are probably near fifty years of age.  If you can’t, that means you probably don’t care. But for me, back in the day, I found Anne Murray to be a heartthrob. And she liked birds. I mean, what can be better for a 10-year-old male discovering both girls and birds at the same time?

So what is a snowbird? It is one of the common names affixed to the Dark-eyed Junco. In Canada, where Anne Murray is from, this bird is a summer visitor and leaves to more southern climes for the winter. In much of the United States, the Junco becomes a harbinger of winter as they return to their “other” home, bringing the colder weather with them. In our area they are not as commonly understood as “snowbirds,” that term being relegated for those human folks that can’t seem to settle down in one place for more than six months at a time.   

There are many different forms of the dark-eyed junco, some of which were formerly separated into different species. Now the different types are bunched together, and separately are considered subspecies or races. There are two that concern us for this article: the Oregon Junco and the Slate-colored Junco. The differences are not that great for the average birder and you are most like to have the former than the latter, but let’s take a look at “our” snowbirds.

Look for a sparrow that is predominantly black in color. The Slate-colored Junco differs from other sparrow-like birds with its distinctive black coloration that covers its head, shoulders, back, tail, and its wings (hence, “slate-colored”). The clearly separated white or buff belly and similar coloration under the tail is also evident. Another important field mark is that pink-colored beak. It can really stand out in some individual birds. This particular subspecie is typically only a winter visitor, thus truly a snowbird. 

The other form of dark-eyed junco we’ll see is the more common of the two and, like most of us, a year-round resident. This is the Oregon Junco. Like its slate-colored cousin the Oregon Junco has that a pink beak and a white (or buff) belly. But instead of that monotonous black color scheme, the Oregon Junco changes things up with brown or rusty-brown shoulders, back and flanks. The wings can range from light brown to dark brown, but brown nonetheless. There is a clear demarcation between the dark head, neck, and nape with the rest of the body.  And guess what? Both races have those dark-eyes. 

The calls of the Junco will have already embedded themselves into your subconscious mind, being as common as they are. But hearing a bird and  identifying that same bird can be a challenging task. The Junco makes two typically sounds. The flocking call or alarm call sounds like someone kissing the air. An easy enough sound for us to make, but can you imagine trying to make that sound without lips? Juncos can! The other sound is the bird’s song. It sounds like a machine gun being shot in short bursts of chirps. If I’ve piqued your interest, search the Internet for a link to the junco’s calls. You’ll understand what I have written above when you hear the sound files. Perhaps you can come up with a better description. Send it to me via the on-line edition. Now you’ve gotten my curiosity up.

Juncos will come readily to feeders during the winter. They are also just as apt to feed below the feeder on any seeds that spill onto the ground or the snow. During the summer you’ll find them in the lower branches of shrubs or searching for goodies among the leaf litter.

Okay, all together now: “Beneath this snowy mantle cold and clean, the unborn grass lies waiting for its coat to turn to green The snowbird sings the song he always sings, and speaks to me of flowers that will bloom again in spring... .”  Yes, that is a good description.  Happy birding.

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birds, outdoors, junco, dark-eyed junco, slate-colored junco, Oregon junco

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