Monday, February 16, 2015

What Kind of Junco?

My friend Douglas Welch of a Gardener's Notebook recently asked me this question:  

What's the current name for, what I knew as, the Oregon Junco?

male Oregon dark-eyed junco
Sometimes it does seem like bird names are constantly in flux. However, this is a different situation. There are several, what Sibley refers to as "regional populations" of dark-eyed juncos.

Dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) are found across North America. These are migratory birds traveling long or short distances in seasonal north-south migrations. Some regional populations, such as in southern California, migrate within a region by elevation. These forest birds don't like cold, but they aren't keen on hot weather either. They tend toward a moderate climate. (I think I might be a junco.) Most dark-eyed juncos spend the winter in a moderate climate, then migrate north or higher in elevation to breed in a forested area.

The most common dark-eyed junco in California and along the west coast is the Oregon dark-eyed junco. These are the small sparrow-type birds with brownish bodies, white bellies, and a distinctive blackish hood on their head. The males hood is more distinctive, females may appear to have a more gray or "sooty" hood.

Occasionally, we also see slate-colored dark-eyed juncos in the Los Angeles area. We have had a slate-colored junco visit for a short time in 2012 and again this February. These juncos are slightly larger. Their appearance is similar except the dark coloring tends to be more all-over slate gray and the hood is less defined or not defined at all. This junco population is found across the U.S. during the winter and summers in the Taiga forests of Canada, Alaska, and the northeastern U.S. 

In our southern California backyard, we have 2-10 Oregon dark-eyed juncos that spend the winter in the native habitat we've tried to recreate. They tend to arrive late September or early October. In 2014 and this year they arrived Oct. 15 and Oct. 7 respectively. They stay through March. (However, in 2013 they stayed until the first week in April and in 2014 one lingered until May 1.) Initially we had two males that came in 2000. Now we see males and females, but always more males. These individuals always leave to breed somewhere else. They may be only migrating to spend the summer at higher elevations in our neighboring Santa Monica Mountains or they may be going as far as southern Alaska and Canada's Yukon Territory.

I was thrilled in 2013 to see a female Oregon dark-eyed junco raising two chicks in Alaska. I'd never seen dark-eyed junco chicks before. This industrious mom was leading her two flightless youngsters along the ground through the black spruce forest. She was constantly catching insects and stuffing them into open mouths. There was no male around. All of the junco families I saw were single-mom affairs.

In 2014 we saw pink-sided dark-eyed juncos in Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. White-winged, red-backed, and gray-headed dark-eyed juncos are all still on my "to see" list.

For more on identifying dark-eyed juncos check out Cornell's All About Birds.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Great Backyard Bird Count - Go Out & Count Birds!

Can you see the nine band-tailed pigeons (Patagioenas fasciata) in the eucalyptus tree?

Today, Friday, February 13 marks the first day of the annual Great Backyard Bird Count 2015. All around the world people are out counting the birds in their yards, neighborhoods, parks and wild places. The real world has no fences! The Santa Monica Mountains and the Pacific Ocean are my backyard!

It's easy and important. When you count and enter your data on-line at you are contributing to science and the world's knowledge of bird populations and migration. How is the snow in Massachusetts impacting birdlife? Will they see fewer birds than the last 18 years of GBBC?

This February day in southern California is going to be in the 80s. Are our winter migratory birds still here or have they left?

white-throated sparrow
This morning in our yard I saw 87 individual birds from 22 species, including this white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) which is somewhat rare for the Los Angeles area. The white-throated sparrow typically is a winter migrant to the south-eastern U.S. Some winters, a few show up here. E-bird and the Great Backyard Bird Count help to track these occurrences. Are more white-throated sparrows spending the winter in southern California? Is their range changing?

How can you participate?  
  • Check out the easy instructions at
  • Count days are Friday thru Monday, Feb. 13, 14, 15, and 16
  • Take a minimum of 15 minutes and go outside wherever you are and count the birds you see, noting their species. (Even gulls in a parking lot count. Don't know what kind of gull it is? That is OK. If you know the basic family group–gull, sparrow, duck–GBBC has a box for basic IDs.)
Pair of spotted towhees and a single mourning dove
How do you count? Take a look at what you see at one time. For example in the photo above: two spotted towhees (Pipilo maculatus) and one mourning dove (Zenaida macroura). Counting in my yard. You don't accumulate the number, you go with the highest number of that species that you see at one time.

I'm going to a neighborhood park today: Serrania Park. My husband will take a few minutes at work to go outside and count. Maybe one of L.A.'s Hidden Gardens is near you. They are a great place to see birds.

Last year people counted more birds than ever. Let's break the record again. Get out there and Count Those Birds!