For many of us, these small, dark sparrows seem to tow winter in their wake.
"If you see a junco, I don't want to hear about it," says a birding buddy on an early fall bird walk. But inevitably, by late September, even he had to face facts: The snowbirds had arrived on schedule, flooding in from the northern forests where they nested over the summer.
Juncos are small sparrows that resemble white birds wearing dark hoodies: They're charcoal-colored on top with white undersides and a pale little beak (some describe the beak as pink). Their arrival along roadsides and in back yards in late fall is a sure sign that winter is on its way.
How do you know if the birds you're seeing are juncos? Look at a small flock of dark birds busily foraging on the ground along a road or park path or under a tree. As you approach, if they sweep away, flashing white feathers on each side of their tails, you can be sure they're juncos. The white tail flash may be designed to startle a predator in pursuit or may signal aggression from one bird to another.
As social as they are, spending their days feeding and resting together, juncos have hierarchies, which are invisible to our eyes. The largest males feed at the center of a circle of foraging juncos. Off their shoulders are other, smaller males. Out at the edges are the females and young birds, which hold the lowest ranks. Why does position matter? Ground-feeders are particularly vulnerable to predators, from cats to hawks, and it's those birds on the edge that are the least safe.
If you want to amaze your friends, point to a flock of these dark little birds, all of which are pretty similar, and say, "Oh, look at those male juncos." You're almost sure to be right, because in our northern region up to 80 percent of a flock will be males. Most females head farther south, and flocks in Southern states are made up mostly of females.
Like all sparrows, juncos are big fans of seeds, and they're not very fussy. In fact, they're one of the few birds that will eat those cheap supermarket mixes of sorghum and millet.
Kids often ask about this little bird's odd name, wondering if it has anything to do with junk. The convoluted explanation: A German biologist back in the 1830s was studying junco specimens shipped from Mexico. He thought they resembled the European reed bunting, so drew from the Latin word for "rush," juncus, and that's how the junco got its name.
Put out the welcome mat
Even on the coldest winter days, juncos are out hopping over the snow or bare ground in search of seeds. And their odd little calls add some color to an otherwise silent season. Their "dik, dik, dik" call, a nasal chip note, sounds almost digital to me. They have a lovely trilling song, too, which we'll hear in late winter, as they get ready to depart for points north.
To make life a little easier for these ground gleaners, you could toss some millet, cracked corn or other seeds on the ground or in a platform feeder. And to really put out the welcome mat, a brush pile offers shelter from wintry blasts. Throw some seed into the branches and juncos can feed in safety and relative warmth.
As much as many of us dread winter, think of these chipper snowbirds coming from the far north to escape the brutal winters and deep snow that covers their food sources. Minnesota is their Florida.
Val Cunningham, a St. Paul nature writer, bird surveyor and field trip leader, can be reached at email@example.com.