Farewell “winter flower”. See you in the fall “Snowbird.” The Dark eyed Junco will soon depart from our yards and feeders for nest sites in Canadian Boreal forests. Our biologist experts in professional language name it Junco hyemalis. Hyemalis is the Latin term for winter flower. Junco is the genus type for the species. The Junco is part of the very large EMBERIZIDAE family of birds. All are types of sparrows.
From the photo our eyes tell us the Junco is a slate gray bird with dark eyes and shades of white on its belly. When it flies a distinct flash of white is visible on the outer edges of its tail. Males are darkest and females a shade of light gray.
Juncos seen during winters in Minnesota move northward to nest on or near the ground in the northern forests of Manitoba and Quebec. Today, most have begun their northward movement. The Junco’s preferred time of day for flight, like many other species, is at night.
The female builds the nest on the ground with materials she finds at the site. It may be of fine grass, pine needles, moss, twigs, leaves, rootlets, even hair if avialable. She locates the nest in a hidden niche or in the roots of a toppled tree. Sometimes she chooses a tree branch to hold her nest. It make take her a week of patient building to finish this egg holder. She will lay between 3-6 tiny white brown speckled eggs. Her steadfast incubation of them will bring them to hatch in 12-13 days. Since Junco nests are largely on the ground the most common nest predators are rodents. God knows why they nest on the ground!
Juncos are largely seed eaters. During the nesting season insect protein is a significant part of their diets. It is no accident that insect populations are large and available food souces at the same time birds nest.
Boreal forests of northern Canada are the spring and summer homes for these birds that hop when they feed on the ground. Home for the Junco and 150 other species of birds Boreal forests are also known around the world as Tiaga. Only 30 species of birds remain in Boreal forests during the frigid winter season. There is good reason the Junco moves southward, winter temperatures in Boreal forests reach a staggering -65 F. The Dark Eyed Junco thrives in this habitat impacted by regular forest fires. Juncos find the fire renewed forest ideal for nesting and raising the next generation.
This little bird occurs in 15 different subspecies on the North American Continent. The Slate-colored, Oregon, Gray-headed, White-winged, and Guadalupe Juncos form the 5 distinct groups in which these subspecies can found. These various subspecies make the Junco a common North America bird. The estimated population is over 630 million birds!
Dark eyed Juncos have a beautiful call. Not showy or elborate, but simply, quietly beautiful. Males sing a trill call of 7-23 notes. It only lasts 1-2 seconds. It’s a wild sound worth listening for.
The Dark eyed Junco provides us with a final lesson. It is unlikely that a glimpse of this bird would remind us of God’s great infinite wisdom. It is just a little dark colored bird. But it does point us to God. Look at the evidence:
- There are 15 different subspecies of this bird. Why such great diversity?
- It migrates at night-safer that way. There is no recorded evidence of a mandate or written policy stating Juncos fly at night. They just do. They have orders from a higher Power.
- The Junco depends on the fire ecology of Boreal forests-something it has no control over.
- It leaves now, migrating to a region where winter temperatures were colder than -50 F. It returns before the extreme cold sets in. It winters here in our winter! How does it know when to move? How sturdy and hardy this bird is-it’s nickname is “Snowbird”. It does not do winter conditioning to build toughness-it just is.
- When it needs protein for egg laying, and raising young-protein is provided in the form of abundant insects that thrive in the Boreal forest. The Junco has no control over this. Food is available.
O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. Psalm 104:24