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.

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