Saturday, December 6, 2008

Dark-eyed Junco…variants?

The Dark-eyed Junco is a pretty common American sparrow, often called the Snowbird, as it is a familiar winter visitor to bird feeders…especially under them. They are found across the continent from northern Alaska south…to northern Mexico. Northern birds usually migrate farther south; southern populations are permanent residents or attitudinal migrants, moving only a short distance down slope to avoid severe winter weather in the mountains. Data from Project FeederWatch show that it is often the most common feeder bird in an area.

Most juncos are somewhat plain, if jaunty looking, little birds; dark on top, light underneath. Most have a gray or black ‘hood’ and a tail that’s dark in the center, with white outer tail feathers that flash as it flies. Juncos are the only sparrow with white outer-tail feathers. Legs and small, conical bill are baby-pink and very conspicuous against the dark feathers of the face and head. Males and females are similar, with females somewhat paler and browner. Immature birds are both paler and streaky-breasted. Usually there are no wing-bars. This bird is about 5-6”, eats mostly seeds and insects and prefers woodlands and forest edges, where it nests on the ground.

There is considerable geographic color variation in this bird; to the extent it is only fairly recently that they have all been lumped together as one species: Junco hyemalis. The Dark-eyed Junco includes five forms that were once considered separate species:

  • The "Slate-colored junco" is the grayest, found from Alaska to Texas and eastward. Its dark, sooty-gray back and hood, sides and tail contrast with its white belly...as seen at the top of this page and here.

  • The Oregon junco" is boldly marked blackish and brown, with a distinct dark hood, and is found in the western half of the continent. This junco has gray-ish wings and tail, buffy sides and back but its hood is very dark…black.

  • The "Gray-headed junco" has a reddish-brown back, gray sides and tail with a somewhat darker belly than the Oregon or Slate-colored juncos. The dark eyes really stand out on this bird and the head does not contrast with the belly. It lives in the central Rocky Mountains.

  • The "White-winged junco" has all gray upper parts, a white belly and sports white wing bars. It breeds only near the Black Hills of South Dakota.
  • The "Pink-sided junco," a pale version of the Oregon junco, living in the northern Rocky Mountains. The head and breast are medium gray with a brownish back and wings; showing pinkish or pale cinnamon-colored flanks with a white belly.
While all the above juncos have that small, pink bill and legs, the "Red-backed junco", found in mountains near the Mexican border is distinctly different. Its bill is bi-colored: quite dark on top and silvery underneath. This is a gray-headed junco that looks for all the world like a Gray-headed junco, with a variable amount of rufus on the wings…except for that bill. This junco may be more closely related to the Yellow-eyed Junco…yet another species not lumped in with the others; but depending who you read it might well be a subspecies of gray-headed juncos. Nobody said this would be easy!

The Yellow-eyed junco, looks much like Red-backed junco, including the bi-colored bill, but has intense yellow eyes rather than dark…and oddly it walks, not hops like other juncos, on the ground.

In that Gray-headed juncos do have a decidedly rufus patch on their backs, don’t confuse it (as I did) with the Red-backed junco of Mexico’s northern mountains. That dark upper mandible is an excellent field marker. Check the bill on that Yellow-eyed junco...the Red-back's bill is just like that but otherwise they look a lot like Gray-headed juncos. Have I confused you yet?

But just to keep things interesting I’m sure, there are also hybrids. While apparently Red-backed and Yellow-eyed juncos do not mix…Slate-colored and Oregon juncos do. They call the results of that inter-breeding a Cassiar junco. I’ve also read that someone banded an unusual Slate-colored Junco…with bold white wing bars! Good luck with that!


Photos from Wikipedia except for the two graciously contributed, with permission, by Bill Schmoker. You can find Schmoker's Blog here, and more of his beautiful photography here. Thanks, Bill!

7 comments:

Bosque Bill said...

Nice post, Beverly. Easier to see than any field guide to be able to view the varieties with the photos by each. Nice clear descriptions, too.

Hee, hee, like you I once had a momentary thrill when I first moved back to NM thinking I had a Red-backed when it was "only" a Grey-headed.

I get Oregon, Pink-sided, and Grey-headed mostly here in the Middle Rio Grande Valley.

Interesting fact I didn't now that the immatures have streaked breasts... guess I've never seen one, probably not surprisingly.

Beverly said...

Thanks so much, Bill. One thing I think I should do, other than just on the photographs Pros let me use, is to add the species to the pics. I think that would help. But yes, generally I try (but am not always successful) to place the photos near the text…in a space-saving kind of way.

Ya know, I don’t know if you followed many of the links, but I found it interesting that I was recently told the Red-backed juncos I’d seen were ‘probably’ Gray-headed ones. As it turns out, my research proved him right…and we both learned the bit about the bi-colored bill. I like to feel my research has some value to others than myself. It’s somewhat bold to add yet-another page to Google, doncha think? LOL

Thank goodness for good photographers letting me use their photos; it’s so much nicer than always just using Wiki.

About the young juncos…I’m wondering if the fat ‘sparrow types’ that we can’t seem to identify might just BE young juncos. It’s possible, huh? From that photo though, it appears their bills might be dark at first. Lordy, it ain’t easy, is it?

I usually get the same juncos you do, but did get a ‘new bird’ a couple times…that turned out to be a White-winged junco. Of course, it appears I never published the photo, which is odd, because I remember researching it and finally figuring out what it was. Unfortunately, I didn’t think it was a big deal. Perhaps it was just a ‘Slate-colored junco with white wing bars’. Sheeshhhhhhh!

Debbie said...

Thanks, Beverly. I really like the little juncos. I had one that visited me in the early fall who had a bad leg. But he seemed to be able to get around ok. I haven't seen any juncos in Breckenridge since the snow started falling. :-( Since I just have my feeders hanging from the balcony, I throw seeds on the deck and that's when I'd get the ground feeding juncos!

Beverly said...

Oh yes, I do that too, Debbie; I toss a bit of seed right onto the ground every time I feed. It's almost the only way to get juncos or the white-crowned sparrows, and what I believe may have been a song sparrow the other day!

Even the pink-butts prefer ground feeding to trying to hang on the small-perched finch-feeders; which by the way the damn squirrels have learned to lift the metal cap up off the double-sided wire hanger that holds it onto the cylinder! Gawd, they are pests and I just chased off nine (9) of them. Ugg!!!

Debbie said...

I don't have a problem with squirrels, but I did have the chipmunks coming around. Not sure if they've gone someplace else or if the fox got them or spooked them. I keep worrying that a hawk will come around and get one of my little birds, but so far so good!

Beverly said...

Funny, while I whole-heartedly resent squirrels coming to my feeders (and usually damaging them); I really don't mind the hawks or owls. That they eat birds is a given, though the really do miss most often (perhaps keeping the birds on their toes?). Some may find this disturbing, but I enjoy my backyard as an opportunity to see various raptors…because of my feeders.

Beverly said...

mmmmmmmm...I doubt it could be a Chipping Sparrow because of the stripy front and the dark spot some sparrows show. I'm not positive...but by deduction I've decided on Song Sparrow; though I refuse to 'count' it because I'm not positive.