Friday, January 13, 2017

Harbingers of Winter

   An old country adage is: "When the snowbirds come early it's best to lay in an extra cord of wood" as they were considered the harbingers of cold weather. The earlier they arrived from the far north to their winter homes the longer the winter.
   Juncos (snowbirds) are kin to the sparrow family and one of the most abundant of the North American song birds. Many are year round residents to a specific area like the Appalachians where they winter in the valley and coves to ascend the mountains during the summer breeding season. These individuals have shorter wings as opposed to the long distance flyers whose wing span is an aid to their flight. Of course, it is difficult to tell which is which unless you have two specimens to compare side-by-side.
   A ground feeding bird we don't notice until they flock beneath feeder pecking away at the small seeds the larger birds rake out in search of more delicious morsels like sunflower seeds. The snow last week was just enough to cover the leaves and makes the dark little birds highly visible.
   The males (above) are dark slate grey with a lighter grey under body and bright white side feathers in their tails that flash like a sail when they fly or hop around on the ground. Their dainty pinkish or ivory white bill was designed to strip the seeds from the sheaths of grasses.
   The females have a brownish tint to the grey as camouflage when nesting their young. Of course, there are many variations some of which even the experts are at a loss to explain.
   Part of the fun of watching snowbirds (juncos) is when they "snow bathe" in the late evening at dusk. They wallow in the snow, flicking it with their wings, and rake it with their feet through their breast feathers. This is done to keep their feathers smooth and sleek on cold windy nights. They will spend as much as ten minutes with this careful grooming ritual to provide themselves with an effective wind breaker.
   They are social birds. Wintering in flocks of 6 to 30. The adult males are top dog in the pecking order, followed by juvenile males, then adult females, and at the bottom are the juvenile females. When roosting for the night the strongest and oldest bird has a special place at the center of the flock in the warmest spot sheltered from the wind while the most fragile of each sex group is pushed to the outside fringes to survive as best they can.
   When roosting each has a separate place, but close enough to gain some warmth from the others. Their internal time clock works with light and when the first point of darkness descends all activity stops and they go to sleep. Occasionally, during the night, one will fly up and flutter its wings often hitting its companions who aim a hit in return. This is to keep their blood circulating in deep cold.
   One junco was discovered to be eleven years old when caught in a banding operation to trace their flight patterns. The male wore a band from an earlier study. He was released, but this is advanced age is rare for any species living in the wild.
   For ground feeders food supplies are low when it snows so it is important to keep feeders filled. It is well worth the effort for the pleasure they give you. By April they will all be gone to their summer home in the far north.

   The image is from Google as our Photoshop computer is down. Old age does take its tole.



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