Snow fell last weekend – the first light storm of the season in Southeastern Massachusetts – and immediately thereafter, a small flock of dark-eyed juncos appeared in my backyard. I’m sure many of you are familiar with these gray and white “snow birds” who are winter visitors in our area.
December 6, 2021, Pembroke
I had been waiting for them, scanning the ground beneath the feeders and the nearby brushy area where they take cover. After the singing insects go silent and the chipmunks hunker down, after other birds head to the tropics, it’s nice to have an active visitor who chooses to winter here and has the capacity to do so. Though I realize that individual juncos have been arriving throughout the fall, and I’ve read that their migration is triggered more by light levels than by weather, there always seems to be a winter day when the group arrives in the yard we share. Perhaps the millet we offer becomes more attractive when snow conceals their wild food.
The juncos in New England are called “slate-colored” for obvious reasons. Notice the stout pink bill and, when the bird takes flight, look for its white outer tail feathers. Like other sparrows, juncos forage on the ground, looking for seeds. When they aren’t eating millet at backyard feeders, they feed on weed seeds such as those of lamb’s quarters and sorrel.
|February 5, 2022|
This species spends a lot of time on or near the ground, hopping as it feeds or, during the breeding season, nesting in the coniferous forests of the north. Yes, S.E. Mass is a balmy getaway for these birds. As of 2011, when Mass Audubon completed its “Breeding Bird Atlas 2,” there were no confirmed breeding records for Bristol or Plymouth Counties.
Although I’ve been familiar with dark-eyed juncos for quite some time, recently I’ve learned a little more about them. This was initiated by an encounter with this bird, the Oregon subspecies, which I observed in California.
October 2, 2022, Moraga, CA
As I stood staring at the poor creature, a passerby gently said, “That’s OUR junco.” Clearly I looked like a birdwatching tourist, for I had not seen an individual with that coloration. No one else stopped to look. Apparently, there are fifteen recognized subspecies and ongoing debate over who’s who. Wikipedia’s entry explains, “It is a very variable species . . . and its systematics are still not completely untangled.” That website and All About Birds include images that demonstrate some variations on the junco theme. Perhaps the species’ broad geographic range, from northern Mexico to northern Canada, encouraged this diversity.
My second discovery concerned junco populations. Multiple websites describe juncos as abundant and a species of low conservation concern, which was welcomed news. My relief was short-lived as I read further: “the North American Breeding Bird Survey reports that populations declined by about 0.7% per year between 1966 and 2019, resulting in a cumulative decline of 31%.” This amounts to “168 million juncos”! The numbers are so enormous that the loss is difficult to comprehend. I didn’t realize that this was happening to dark-eyed juncos, but I know very well that bird and other wildlife populations are plummeting. If, at one time, I dismissed my memories of a richer world as the distortions of nostalgia, I can no longer. My gut feeling has been that I am seeing half of whatever I used to observe . . . and that is not far off the mark.
A 2019 New York Times article, “Birds are Vanishing from North America”, substantiates this impression. It cites a study published in Science that assessed bird populations since 1970. Its conclusion: “The number of birds in the United States and Canada has declined by 3 billion, or 29 percent, over the past half-century, scientists find.” Three billion just in North America, just in 50 years. These numbers reflect losses of common, adaptable species like starlings which have experienced “a 49 percent decline.” Even if you think you are uninterested in birds, this should be terrifying news, for birds facilitate ecological processes wherever they live, and they reflect the health of their surroundings.
Now’s the time to cherish the gentle bird outside your door and to do all that you can to create a better world.
January 30, 2022
how charming this bird, but sorrow on hearing of its decline.
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