The Light-eyed Dark-eyed Junco

By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

The bird looked stunned. It hopped somewhat unsteadily on the shell surface in front of my garage door and I was thinking it must have just bounced off the house. It was a Dark-eyed Junco but the eye facing me was white, and I realized it was blind on that side. The other eye looked fine and as I approached the bird, it roused, and flew weakly up and over onto my front lawn.

As a boy, I would have pursued this little guy and put him in a cage and tried to get him to eat and drink, and then sadly picked up his lifeless body from the cage bottom the next morning to be buried in the garden. Now, my attitude is more sanguine, and I realize there is a Sharp-shinned Hawk out there, just looking for a junco like this one, and I shouldn’t take away its meal. Not only that, without a Salvage Permit, it’s against the law to take in a wild bird.

Juncos are a wonderful part of winter. People call them "snowbirds" and mostly exclaim negatively when they see them arrive. "Oh no – winter is here already. The snowbirds have arrived!"

Here on Nantucket, they show up about the second week of October and from then on, their frequency depends on whether a cold front has just rolled in or not. If you feed the birds, you can look out in your yard on a particular November morning and it will seem to be "raining" juncos, as they descend to feed on the ground.

When I was learning the birds, this junco was known as the "Slate-colored Junco" and I still like that name rather than "Dark-eyed". I mean, most birds seem to have dark eyes. Yes, there is a species called the "Yellow-eyed Junco" which just makes it across the Arizona border from Mexico. But this is a bird that doesn’t stray from its range. Our juncos are definitely the color of slate, and you really don’t notice the eyes.

We also have "Oregon" Juncos (far west) and "Pink-sided" and "White-winged" Juncos (the Rockies) to think about. A few Oregon Juncos show up here in the East every year and people used to travel from all over to see them, and add them to their "Life Lists". Now it is just another variant of the Dark-eyed Junco.

So what does a junco look like? They are roughly sparrow-sized, mainly gray above, and white below. When you see them fly away, they show white ‘flags’ on each side of their tails. A poet might describe them as "leaden skies above, snow below", which fits well with the winter scene. Our juncos have pinkish beaks, which contrast sharply with the gray head. An adult male is a darker slate color than the rest, and the line of contrast between the dark throat and the snow-white belly is quite dramatic.

On Nantucket, they can provide a spark of life to the otherwise harsh winter landscape. If you are near juncos, their calls electrify the air, sounding to me like the noise a stone makes when you skip it across a frozen pond. As a boy, we would do this sort of thing frequently, testing the thickness of the ice before venturing out. But this is just a contact call note. In February and March, juncos start to practice their territorial songs. You hear a high pitched, somewhat brittle sound like the ringing of a little bell. It is a bit subtle, but once you pick it up, it is breathtaking.

The snowbirds stay on until early May, so you will get to enjoy them all winter. They will come and feed on the ground under your feeders, picking up the seed scraps the other birds displace. If we have a dry snow, watch to see if they "snow bathe", a unique practice of this species, similar to what sparrows do with dust in the summer.

My half-blind junco though, will not see another spring, and is probably already in junco ‘heaven’, having supplied a day’s energy for an enterprising Sharp-shinned Hawk, or perhaps a Cooper’s. Very little gets wasted in nature.

If you enjoy social birding, every Sunday a group meets in the parking lot in front of the Nantucket High School at 8 a.m.

To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444, option 4.