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Volume 15, Issue 50 ~ December 13 - December 19, 2007

Earth Journal by Gary Pendleton

Chesapeake Snowbirds

Our winter’s just right for juncos

The great migration begins in October. From the mountains of Oregon to the hills of Pennsylvania, snowbirds begin the seasonal shift from their summer territories to warmer climes. Human snowbirds might load up their cars to drive from Maryland to Florida, with occasional stops at the Cracker Barrel. Avian snowbirds don’t pack anything; they simply gather in small flocks and fly away.

Junco hyemalis is a plain but handsome little sparrow that occurs from coast to coast. Across its continent-wide range, the junco’s outward appearance varies significantly from one region to another. The plumage variations are like regional accents. From west to east the junco variations, or sub-species, are known as Oregon, pink-sided, grey-headed, white-winged and, here in the East, the familiar slate-colored. Collectively they share the official species name dark-eyed juncos, and they are all called snowbirds.

All juncos have dark eyes and white outer tail feathers. Adult male slate-colored juncos are two-toned: slate gray all over except for the outer tail feathers and a white belly. The females have the same pattern, but the gray is pale with hints of cinnamon brown.

Slate-colored juncos breed in the evergreen forests of New England and Canada; there is also a breeding population in the Appalachians. When fall begins its slow turn to winter, the birds fly south or just down the mountains for the winter, to feed on the seeds of weeds and grasses. You find them in large numbers at the edges, places where woods and fields come together; also along hedgerows and in back yards. They often forage in the company of cardinals and white-throated sparrows.

The American Chestnut Land Trust near Prince Frederick has plenty of prime junco habitat, so it is a great place to find them, along with their winter friends. Generals Highway Corridor Park in Crownsville is a mixed-use facility with ball fields and acres of newly planted trees; you’ll find juncos there too. Actually any small park or even back yard is likely to have good junco habitat.

Don’t look for this bird in the treetops. Juncos keep close to the ground, in or around shrubs or weedy patches where they can find shelter and food. A good way to attract juncos is to scatter a few handfuls of millet and sunflower right on the ground. If you have shrubs or other plants to shelter the birds, put the seed nearby. You can reuse your Christmas tree to make instant bird habitat by setting it on the ground and scattering seed around it.

These snowbirds will begin their reverse migration in early April; by May they will be practically all gone.

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