On the Refuge...
by Scott Lee
The Juncos are back! Although I love those little critters, I’m not sure if I should be excited, or kind of sad, to see them arrive.
They are regulars at (or rather on the ground under) my feeders and so much fun to watch, happily munching on millet, sunflower hearts, and cracked corn. The problem is, they are a true sign of winter’s arrival. Juncos spend their summers in the conifer forests of the northern U.S. and in Canada so the only time they become regulars around here is when they migrate “south” - mainly at night at very low altitudes. To them, we ARE their south. They tend to bring snowy winter weather on their wings as they migrate, so are appropriately often nicknamed ‘snowbirds’.
The dark-eyed juncos are a medium sized member of the sparrow family and tend to return to the same area each winter. Your seed feeders become a favorite for their feasting so welcome them by keeping them full, as well as sprinkling some on the ground underneath. Despite only seeing them around here through the winter, they are one of the most common birds in North America.
Juncos adapt to the cold by fluffing up their feathers, a term called “ptiloerection”, that helps them trap as much air in their feathers as possible. They actually have some 30% more feathers (by weight) in the winter than they do in the summer. As a result of this adaptation, their life span can range up to ten years.
My favorite name for a flock of juncos is “chittering”, but they are also referred to as a flutter, crew, or host. They have a high, short ‘chit’ note that they often give in rapid succession when they fly and more slowly as they forage, primarily on the ground. Enjoy them while you can and don’t worry, the robins and bluebirds will be back to replace them come spring!