Every autumn as winter approaches in the Tehachapi Mountains, a bird suddenly becomes abundant that other times of year is rarely seen. Commonly known as a "Snowbird," this distinctive and easy to recognize songbird with a black head and cape is officially called a Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis).
Classed as a type of sparrow, this dapper little bird eats seed off the ground, and even at bird feeders prefers to glean seeds that have been scattered to the ground by other feeder visitors. These unassuming birds are even partial to the smaller millet seeds that seem to be at the bottom of the preference list for most feeder birds.
Juncos can frequently been found in mixed flocks with similar-sized birds, such as White-crowned Sparrows, House Finches and House Sparrows. In addition to the dark hood, Juncos can be recognized when they fly away from you by their white outer tail feathers, which periodically flash as a white streak running on either side of their outstretched tails. They also make soft little trills, whistles and chirps as they forage communally.
There are numerous variations in the appearance of Dark-eyed Juncos, and in the past they have been placed in different subspecies. Ornithologists are divided between "lumpers" and "splitters": those who like lumping subspecies of birds into one big diverse specie, and those who tend to split a large specie into many different subspecies. The lumpers seem to have won with regard to the Dark-eyed Junco, at least for now, and there are fewer species of Juncos recognized than there once was. However, there are obvious and undeniable differences between some populations of Juncos, even if the birds are perfectly happy to hybridize and mingle with birds that differ in appearance from themselves.
For example, the version of Dark-eyed Junco that we have in large numbers every winter is the "Oregon" race or subspecies, which has a much darker hood and is generally more colorful than the grayer "Slate-colored Juncos" that are common in Eastern States. The "Oregon" birds with the darker markings are the ones most commonly found throughout the Pacific States and other parts of the West.
Perhaps it was an "Oregon" bird that Linnaeus first mentioned in 1758, for he described it as "Fringilla negre, ventro albo" meaning "A black finch with a white belly." The scientific name of Junco hyemalis, literally means "A Junco of the winter." The specimen that Linnaeus got to examine was provided by Mark Catesby, an English naturalist who was born in 1682 and visited America between 1712 and 1719. Catesby described what he called a "snowbird" in this way: "The Bill of this Bird is white: The Breast and Belly white. All the rest of the Body black; but in some places dusky, inclining to Lead-color. In Virginia and Carolina they appear only in Winter : and in Snow they appear most. In Summer none are seen. Whether they retire and breed in the North (which is most probable) or where they go, when they leave these Countries in Spring, is to me unknown."
You don't see Juncos much in the warmer months because they move to higher elevations or more northerly locations. I encounter a few in our mountains during summer, usually foraging in the vicinity of conifers like Jeffrey Pines and White Firs. The Christmas song "Winter Wonderland" refers to Juncos, though not by name: "Gone away, is the bluebird," [not in our area, Western Bluebirds are year-round residents and they are joined by some Mountain Bluebirds in winter] "Here to stay, is the new bird," Well, for a few months anyway.
It is true that Juncos are commonly associated with snow, for they are most frequently seen during the time of year that snow is present. They seem largely unfazed by snow, but they are perfectly happy to enjoy a sunny December day in Tehachapi, hopping about in search of small seeds. . .Welcome back, Dark-eyed Juncos!
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for the Tehachapi News for over 30 years. Send email to: firstname.lastname@example.org