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Mike Jacobs Always in Season: ‘Bush birds’ drop into backyards

The juncos’ preference for low foliage makes them frequent guests in backyards and along the Red River Greenway, where they feed along the pavement.

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Illustration/Mike Jacobs
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    Mike Jacobs.jpg
    Mike Jacobs.
    Tom Stromme

    GRAND FORKS – The other day – it was Monday, Oct. 17 – about 30 dark-eyed juncos fell out of a tree in our backyard. Actually, that verb rings false. Better to write that the juncos dropped out of the tree. That indicates they meant to do it, whereas dropped makes it seem accidental.

    Certainly, the juncos intended to be there. Juncos are among the most regular of fall migrants, showing up in early October and hanging around well into December most years and in some years even later.

    It all depends on snowfall. Juncos eat off the ground, almost exclusively. When the ground is snow covered, the juncos take off.

    Juncos are bush birds, in two senses. They favor low shrubbery, though the lower branches of my backyard tree made a good staging area for them. They dropped onto the ground under one of my bird feeders.

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    The juncos’ preference for low foliage makes them frequent guests in backyards and along the Red River Greenway, where they feed along the pavement. Humans, and their dogs, use those paved paths, as well, and often the juncos flit along ahead of the walkers. This offers an opportunity for identification. Juncos show off in flight. The outer tail feathers are white. Otherwise, juncos are gray – slate-colored, as older field guides described them. The slate color extends up the back, over the head and neck and onto the breast, where it ends sharply. The lower breast is white, sometimes luminously so. Thus, the plain-colored junco becomes a striking species.

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    The other sense in which “bush birds” applies to juncos is their nesting range. They are inhabitants of the country colloquially known as “bush.” This extends across the northern portion of the continent from Atlantic to Pacific. Some of the bush country extends into northeastern Minnesota and the Appalachians and Rocky Mountains. There’s an isolated population in the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming.

    The juncos have a long history of disagreement and dissent among those who study birds. This involves the status of differing populations as species or subspecies. The consensus today is for a single North American species of junco, and of two Mexican species confined to very narrow breeding grounds.

    You can get into an argument about subspecies. I found one list of 15 subspecies in one authoritative source I consulted, and 17 in another – all of these in North America, mind you. That’s a pretty sharp reduction from the bad old days when splitters, like Dr. Elliot Coues, a pioneer birder in DakotaTerritory, among other places, managed to find more than 20 subspecies of juncos.

    Only two of these concern us in the Red River Valley. The vast majority of juncos here are dark-eyed juncos. The name is appropriate. The eye does stand out against the pale gray face.

    A second subspecies is a regular visitor here, showing up on most Christmas bird counts. This is the Oregon junco, which shows some brown plumage along the sides of the breast and belly. The Oregon junco is distinctive enough that it can be reliably separated from the mass of other juncos, and so the bird count reports make room for it.

    Juncos make good “starter birds” for beginning bird watchers. They are abundant – among the most abundant birds on the continent. They are fearless and not flighty, so they are approachable. They are easily identified from front, side and rear – a convenience for the novice birder.

    What’s more, they have a whiff of the exotic about them. They are long distance travelers from areas that most of us will never visit (though, of course, wilderness fishermen might find them nesting in northern Manitoba). They are not gregarious in nesting season, though.

    The Manitoba Naturalists Society, by the way, acknowledges four discernible subspecies in the province.

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    Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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