Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Dark-eyed Junco

My first introduction to Dark-eyed Juncos was in May a couple of years ago, at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz area.  The man who told me what they were called seemed pretty unimpressed by them, kind of the way I, a spoiled Californian birder, would describe our endemic tropical-looking Yellow-billed Magpie to someone from, well, literally any other state.  This man was from San Francisco, where Dark-eyed Juncos flock to backyard birdfeeders year-round; I am from the Central Valley, where they only visit during the winter, and I had apparently not yet noticed them at that time.  It was a new bird for my life list that day, so I was thrilled! 

I was charmed by these little hooded sparrows, hopping along on the ground.  After seeing them in the redwoods, I started noticing Dark-eyed Juncos more often.  I saw them in the Sierras, both east and west of the crest, during the summer.  And just recently, on Thanksgiving Day, I spotted a flock of these lovely little birds foraging for seeds on the ground in a grassy area at CSU Stanislaus.  They are ground feeders, gleaning fallen seeds from the forest floor, often emitting "chip" calls as they do so.  Dark-eyed Juncos are in the family Emberizidae, along with other new-world sparrows (such as the White-crowned Sparrow, Lincoln's Sparrow and Song Sparrow).

Dark-eyed Juncos are birds of conifer forests across Canada, the western United States, and the Appalachians; during the winter, they spread out across the rest of the United States, flocking together in woodlands as well as fields, parks and backyards.  In California, they are year-round residents of the coast regions and Sierra, venturing into the Great Central Valley during the winter months.
There is great regional variation in the coloration of Juncos; in California, we see what is known as the Oregon race.  Other races include the slate-colored, pink-sided, white-winged and gray-headed Dark-eyed Juncos.  15 races are described, but really these six are considered the most easily distinguished.  A general rule is that the slate-colored race is found on the east coast, and the Oregon race on the west.  See a good field guide to North American birds for more details.  (I highly recommend The Sibley Guide to Birds.)

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