The Black Snowbird: a model houseguest

The slate-colored junco was known as the common snowbird or black snowbird by our great grandparents, certainly a more appealing and descriptive name than junco. Early North Americans settlers associated the bird with the snow bunting, (called the white snowbird or snowflake) but ornithologists around the turn of the 20th century quashed that name as physiological studies indicated that the two birds were distinctly different species. The origin of the name junco is unknown (at least as far as I could discover). The slate-colored junco is one of six members of the dark-eyed junco family, a widespread and numerous clan that is common throughout the continent. Oregon, pink-sided, white-winged, gray-headed and red-backed juncos are all cousins: all reside west of the Mississippi River and thus are unlikely to be encountered in this area. (There is also one yellow-eyed junco, also a western resident). Arriving in both spring and fall, the junco is a like a model houseguest in his visits to feeders in our region. As if anxious not to outlast its welcome, the small flock usually remains only a week or so and then is on the wing again. The distribution maps show our area as between the winter and summer ranges for the junco, although breeding juncos in this area are not unknown. In winter the bird favors the edges of clearings with mixed and evergreen growth, but nests on the ground in coniferous forest with lots of dense undergrowth. The small seeds which are the juncos principal diet are mostly found by foraging on the ground. The neat gray, black and white plumage of the junco makes a distinctive addition to our winter bird population, but the junco family is of significant importance to ecological researchers. Large numbers (recent estimates indicate a total junco population of 630 million birds), relative tameness, and the wide range of the junco family have resulted in the bird being used extensively for research. The junco has been used in avian behavior studies, conservation and forest management, and physiological research (for example the effect of daylight on migratory activities) by many different types of researchers for many decades. Not just a pretty face!

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