Supermodel of the Songbird World

By Patricia Thompson
WHICH would you rather be, a glamorous supermodel or a reliable best friend?

There are the delicate supermodels of the songbird bird world: Think Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia) or Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana)—migrants that abandon us for the tropics at the least sign of a chill.

Vivacious little juncos, on the other hand, stick with us through rain, snow, wind and gloom. The Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) is about as glamorous as an old toaster, but for all its ordinariness, it’s Washington’s most reliable backyard bird. How vacant would our winters be without this familiar species?

Dark-eyed Juncos are here year-round, nesting and foraging on the ground or in hopper-type and platform feeders. They prefer black oil and hulled sunflower seeds, peanut kernels, millet, thistle seeds and occasionally suet mixes.

These dependable little residents weigh in at about 3⁄4 ounce, and have been clocked flying at 26 mph. They come in many color variations, though the “Oregon” race is the one most frequently found in Washington. Even with the color variations, one thing is for sure: The flick of the white outer tail feathers on a departing bird says junco.

Dark-eyed Juncos used to be classified in the finch family Fringillidae and are still called a finch in some references. But they are now in the very closely related family Emberizidae, the Wood Warblers, tanagers, cardinals, grosbeaks, buntings, blackbirds and sparrows.

If you look in your field guide, juncos are likely placed among the sparrows, to which they are most closely related. Think of the junco as an environmental barometer. If the junco population starts to decline, we will know our environment is in serious trouble.

Like any of the common backyard birds, it is enormously important to monitor them, so we can catch a crisis at the beginning.— Seattle Times

EDITOR’S NOTE: Patricia Thompson is a wildlife biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.