November 19, 2011
The harbinger of winter
Notwithstanding a few days of gloriously sunny almost 70 degree weather, I have finally embraced the fact that Summer 2011 is over. Was it the wind that stripped the kaleidoscopic fall colors from the trees, leaving a blanket of rust hued leaves on our lawn, our driveway, and our porches, that pushed me to this reality? Even the oak, always the last at releasing its foliage, is bare. Or could it have been the two dustings of snow a week apart? Or was it our cat Aster stretched out next to the dining room radiator for her post-breakfast nap?
These things helped bring me ‘round to the truth of Jack Frost’s coming but didn’t push me over the edge to total acceptance. It was the arrival of a bird, the dark-eyed, slate-colored junco “with a belly as white as a snow flurry and back the color of a snow-laden sky”* that made me cry: Oh no, we’ve got to get the storm windows in!
The junco is called “the harbinger of winter” and it sure is for me. I know that this member of the sparrow family returns to Northeast Ohio from its northern Canadian summer home around this time of year and stays until April. Living in the outskirts of the snowbelt, I don’t think of my hometown as where I’d choose to overwinter if I had the wings to fly, but the junco likes it here.
Easy to recognize, juncos are dark gray (although females are paler gray, veiled with brown) with white outer tail feathers that flash open in flight. With their bright pink bills, “they are considered one of the top five most common feeder birds in the winter,” states Wild Birds Forever. You’ll see them on the ground, bopping around at the bases of trees, on your lawn, on your woodland walks. They are abundant.
Maybe it’s my goofy imagination, but juncos look like they belong in a Wallace & Gromit film; they could be stand-ins for Feathers McGraw, the “silent, yet sinister” criminal mastermind that first appeared in The Wrong Trousers. Originally thought to be a chicken, Feathers was exposed as a penguin, wearing a red glove on his head as a disguise. I can hear the junco mimic British inventor Wallace’s plea for more cheese with its own more seed as they forage by our garage. (Watch the Link of the Week and you’ll know what I’m talking about. I am not completely crazy.)
“Over the past several years,” reports Mike Baird of Wildlife Promise, “scientists have made some interesting discoveries about the social and breeding behavior of dark-eyed juncos. During winter, the birds form rigid hierarchies led by dominant males and their seemingly closest adult male buddies. Younger males and females often are pushed to the periphery or forced to migrate farther south to avoid confrontations with these 'good old boy' networks.....the über-juncos tend to die at a younger age. Not only does elevated testosterone make them less wary of predators, it also increases their stress levels and promotes production of corticosterone, a hormone that mobilizes quick-release energy but also breaks down protein and leads to the atrophy of muscles, feathers and organs.”
Ah, a lesson from the bird world for the imperious Type A men in our lives.
Wild Birds Forever Tips on Attracting Juncos to Your Backyard*
Juncos enjoy the millet found in mixed bird seed, sunflower hearts and cracked corn spread on the ground or in a platform feeder. Juncos can sometimes be attracted to suet if it is offered low to the ground. Open ground and gardens gone to seed are a favorite haunt; juncos are particularly fond of the seeds from cosmos and zinnia. Consider leaving a space in your yard untended and free of chemicals.
*Borrowed from Wild Birds Forever