Dark-Eyed Juncos — Evolution in Action

Once I had a fancy camera that held bird images still so that I could figure out what I was looking at, I began to learn a lot more about LBJs — Little Brown Jobbies — little birds that are around us but we really don’t pay much attention to. And one of the first LBJ birds I learned about was the Dark-eyed Junco.https://amylaw.blog/2015/03/05/spring-is-coming-really/

If you look at a lot of bird books, the generic entry Dark-eyed juncos says that they are a type of sparrow with pink to orange bills and legs, and white edges on their tails; they winter south to Mexico, and breed from Alaska and southern Canada all the way to the arctic tundra. Colorado is lucky that they can live here year-round.

But reality is much more complex.

Slate-colored juncos are dark gray on their backs and heads, and white on their breasts. The line on their breasts between the gray and white forms an inverted ‘U’.

If you are from the Eastern US, the slate-colored junco is probably the dark-eyed junco you are most familiar with. They breed in Canada, and winter in the continental United States. I don’t have very good photos of the slate-colored because they usually show up at my feeders when it’s snowing. They flit in for some seeds then dart back into the trees. This behavior is typical enough that dark-eyed juncos are called the “snow bird”. Humans have co-opted the nickname to mean elderly folk who show up in warm climates in winter.

Slate-colored junco also called the “snow bird”.

As it turns out, Juncos were a tough species for me to use to start learning about LBJs. Dark-eyed Juncos come in a huge variety of subspecies — five subspecies with three subspecies having even smaller ‘races’ within them. And the most amazing thing about all this variety is that it seems to have developed just in the last 10,000-13,000 years — since the last Ice Age! https://www.audubon.org/news/dark-eyed-juncos-backyard-gems-come-dazzling-array-colors

eBird has this to say about juncos: “…incredible variation between populations. All have short pink bills and white outer tail feathers. Often in flocks in winter, foraging on the ground for seeds. Visits feeders. Subspecies include: Slate-colored (widespread), Oregon (West), Pink-sided (Rockies), Gray-headed (Rockies), Red-backed (central Arizona and New Mexico), and White-winged (Colorado in winter).” https://ebird.org/species/daejun

This is the classic Oregon dark-eyed junco — pink or yellow beak, black hood distinct from brown back or red sides, white breast, white edges of the tail. At first glance, it doesn’t look anything like the slate-colored dark-eyed junco, above. But it still has the pink beak and white-edged tail of a dark-eyed junco.

Oregon dark-eyed juncos have a distinct black hood.

The Oregon junco breeds in the Pacific Northwest, but they winter throughout the west and the Great Plains, which is why I get to see them.

Pink-sided dark-eyed junco.

This bird looks like a pale version of the Oregon junco above. Often pale versions are females while bright versions are males, but in this case, it’s just another sub-species of dark-eyed junco. The above bird is called a pink-sided junco because of the orangish-pink sides. This seems like a small difference to call out, especially when the big difference I see between it and the Oregon is that it has a pearly gray head.

But that the gray-headed junco is another dark-eyed junco. They do indeed have a gray head, so that works out. In fact, gray-headed dark-eyed juncos are all gray, except for a rusty patch on their backs, and the white edges on their tails.

Gray-headed juncos are gray pretty much everywhere except their backs, which are rusty red. Again, pink or yellow beak, white edge to the tail (you can just see that in this picture) make them a junco.

They are residents of the Rocky Mountains, and move up and down the mountain elevations more than north and south, so these are the juncos I’ll see in the mountains in the summer.

And these are just the birds that have come to our feeder! The white-winged, the red-backed, Guadeloupe — even more subspecies of dark-eyed junco are sprinkled around in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.

WHO CARES???

Well, I do.

I care for a couple of reasons.

First, I always feel like once I can identify a bird, and know where it’s found, I know that bird a little better — it’s now a friend.

Second, it fascinates me that dark-eyed juncos are splintering into all these different forms in just 13,000 years. To give you an idea of how fast their changes are happening, dogs split off from wolves 15,000-30,000 years ago. So when these birds finally become separate species, they will be the youngest species in the world. That’s evolution in action.

And that is pretty cool.

Birds Before the Storm

This has been such a weird year.

Earlier this week, we saw a female broad-tailed hummingbird feeding on the last of a neighbor’s Rose-of-Sharon flowers.

Then we had three more forest fires start in the mountains to the west. It’s October! It is time to cool off.

But this morning we woke to cold temperatures and even a little sleet on the ground. And that brought in the birds. House and goldfinches, a northern flicker, chickadees and a couple of red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches.

But among these frequent fliers, I saw two dark-eyed juncos.

Pink-sided form of dark-eyed junco.

Dark-eyed juncos have between four and five different color schemes — ornithologists have changed how they classify them. They used to all be called different forms of Oregon juncos, now just some are called Oregon-form juncos, along with slate-colored, white-winged and pink-sided. Very confusing. https://amylaw.blog/2018/03/31/hawk-nest-monitoring-begins/

Grey-headed dark-eyed junco.

But they all have the dark eye and yellow-pink bill, so they all go in the same species. https://amylaw.blog/2015/03/05/spring-is-coming-really/

But as we were enjoying the all little birdies, we noticed one we couldn’t quite place.

Female or juvenile Cassin’s finch.

A finch that was striped all over, not just on her chest. After a flurry of thumbing throw bird books, we decided a female or juvenile Cassin’s finch — they look the same until the males molt. The clincher was the white ring around her eye. Cassin’s finches are usually found in the foothills or lower mountains. I have no idea why she decided to come visit us. But she is welcome anytime.

Hawk Nest Monitoring Begins

As many of you know, I volunteer for the Jefferson County Open Space along the Front Range of Colorado. Last year, I worked on a new-to-me program, hawk nest monitoring. The nest I watched last year seems to have been abandoned, so I moved to a new spot this year, watching Red-Tailed Hawks.

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Nest on a ledge in an old quarry. The fine wavy lines on the orange rocks to the left are ripples in the fossilized beach sands that make up Dakota sandstone.

So far this year, there hasn’t been any activity by Red-Tailed Hawks at the nest itself. A couple have landed nearby, but they didn’t approach the nest. They still have a few weeks before they need to decide where they want to raise their young this year.

I did see a pair of Red-Tails come by, but I think they were migrants, on their way further north. The Dakota Hogback is a major hawk migration route, and this nest is very close to the hogback.

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I was only able to photograph one of the migrating Red-Tails, and that was against a cloudy background that makes it hard to appreciate their colors. But this bird has classic Red-Tailed markings — dark head and leading edge of the wings, dark “commas” where the flight feathers begin, white underside with a dark belly band. And of course, a red tail.

But I did spend a pleasant couple of hours watching 50 Dark-Eyed Juncos scratch in the dirt.

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All Dark-Eyed Juncos have dark eyes and pinkish bills. But Dark-Eyed Juncos come in four different color variations. The dark headed bird above is an Oregon morph.

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Male pink-sided Dark-Eyed Junco.

I would have called this a tri-color bird, but it is officially called a pink-sided Dark Eyed Junco. The sides look more orange or tan to me, but again, I didn’t get to name it.

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Female pink-sided Dark-eyed junco. See how her colors aren’t as intense?

At the same time I was watching these little guys forage in the foreground, about 20 Mountain Bluebirds looked for food about ten yards distant.

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With their striking blue colors, these guys are noticeable when they fly by in a flock.

 

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Male Mountain bluebird going after something it’s seen on the ground.

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As with many bird species, the females lack the bright colors that the males wear. But you can still see a line of blue just under her wing and onto her tail.

Cold Weather Birds

We woke up to 12o F (-11o C) in central Colorado — we have yet to have a significant snowfall in the foothills west of Denver. It’s been a little odd to see so many different types of winter birds coming to the feeder without snow. But they are coming!

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House sparrows. House sparrows were introduced into North America in 1851 and 1852. They quickly covered the US and most of Canada and Mexico.

 

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House finches. According to Birds of North America (https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/houfin/introduction), house finches started out as a desert species of California and Mexico. They were released in New York City in 1939, and have exploded across the country.

 

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Collared doves. These birds were introduced to North America in the 1970s, and have since spread across the continent. Scientists worry that they will compete with native doves, like the mourning dove, but the verdict is still out.

 

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Black-capped chickadees. Always in motion, these guys flit from tree to feeder to bushes.

 

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Red-breasted nuthatches.  Five years ago, I rarely saw nuthatches at my feeders. Now they are fairly common. (Nuthatches paring up)

 

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Dark-eyed juncos. I rarely see dark-eyed juncos when there isn’t any snow on the ground. This year, I’ve seen a lot of them.

 

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Hairy woodpecker. People in our neighborhood trim the deadwood out of their trees pretty quickly, so it’s a treat when they stop by.

 

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Bushtit. These little guys usually fly around in a flock of 20 or so, chipping constantly to keep in contact with each other. (Sharp-shinned hawk misses flicker)

We hope your holidays are filled with as many interesting visitors as ours!

 

 

 

 

Spring is coming. Really.

If we can just hold on a little longer, spring is coming. How do I know? Robins, dark-eyed juncos and rufus-sided towhees are back at the feeders.

Dark-eyed juncos come in many different plumages. You know that they are dark-eyed juncos, though, because they have dark eyes, and they have a yellow beak.

Dark-eyed juncos come in many different plumages. You know that they are dark-eyed juncos, though, because they have dark eyes, and they have a yellow beak.

This dark-eyed junco looks more like the next bird, a Rufus-sided towhee than the previous junco. But compare the beaks.

This dark-eyed junco looks more like the next bird, a rufus-sided towhee than the previous junco. But compare the beaks.

Rufus-sided towhee has more distinct wing bars and a dark beak compared to the juncos.

Rufus-sided towhees have more distinct wing bars and a dark beak compared to the juncos. They are also a bit larger than juncos.

Also, as I was walking into to library this morning, I heard a crow making a weird ringing “B’Dong! B’Dong!  B’Dong! B’Dong!” call. It drew a crowd as people interpreted the call as “Hello! Hello!”If I tried I could kinda hear “Hello! Hello!  Hello! Hello!” instead of “B’Dong! B’Dong!  B’Dong! B’Dong!” Maybe it was imitating the sounds it heard from the patrons entering the library.

This crow made to most un-crow-like "B'Dong! B'Dong!" call. Some people felt it sounded more like "Hello! Hello!

This crow made to most un-crow-like “B’Dong! B’Dong!” call. Some people felt it sounded more like “Hello! Hello!

One man walking by stated that it was “a crow mating call.” I haven’t been able to confirm that crows make a very un-crowlike “B’Dong! B’Dong!  B’Dong! B’Dong!” when searching for a mate, but I can’t deny it yet, either. It does say that crows are capable of some very odd sounds, well beyond the classic “caw”.

So hang in there! The weather for the rest of the week should melt off some snow!