There are many harbingers of spring, such as flowers (like the Prairie Crocus), but for many people spring marks the return of the migrating birds. The most popular and noticeable is the American Robin; another is the Varied Thrush. But for us, the first of the migratory returnee birds we see in spring in K-Country every year are the various types of Dark-Eyed Juncos, Junco hyemalis. We have lots of photos of them taken in early March, and as they stick around until as late as early December before migrating again. In fact, their arrival usually coincides with the first grizzly sightings, and their departure with the last ones.
Can you tell them apart?
There are at least 3 subspecies of Dark-Eyed Juncos that can be seen in K-Country. There’s the “Slate Coloured”, which is mostly a dull gray with a black head. There’s the “Oregon” which has a rustier brownish body. And we occasionally see the “Northern Rockies” which is more brownish still.
But… all three species interbreed; telling one from another is somewhat challenging. They are normally all just lumped together as “Juncos”.
They are easily identified in the forest; all the Juncos feature iridescent white outer tail feathers, which flash at you as they fly. There are some other sparrows that have this feature, but none are grey/black.
Juncos are ground dwellers, eating seeds, bugs and berries, and they love the stuff that falls on the ground from your bird feeder. They are also ground or near-ground nesters, and a key species under the Migratory Bird Act we have to avoid disturbing when doing trail work.
Juncos are rarely solitary and are often found in flocks of 5-20 birds of all sub-species. Juncos often have 2 broods a year, on a very accelerated pace. Eggs hatch 10-12 days after laying, and the chicks fledge 10-12 days after that. Our experience with young Juncos is that they’re pretty dumb; they are the number one species of bird that whacks into windows in K-Country. We have oftentimes rescued them by simply warming them in our hands until their headaches go away.
Meet more of the critters of K-Country here!