Thursday, February 10, 2011

Dark-eyed Juncos

Everyone appreciates the splash of color that cardinals, blue jays and flickers bring to the winter feeding station, but for me it's all about the subtle colors.  The incredible detail in the female cardinal's plumage, the soft look of the gray jays and then, my all-time favorite, the dark-eyed juncos.

Those drab little gray birds you say? Take a good look at one through your bincos some time. The white to dark demarcation lines are graceful and soft, the line from their heads to their necks is rounded and gives them a "bundled up" look. The outer tail feathers are bright white and flash as they fly from the side of winter roads into scrubby trees just to let you know that yes, that flock of birds you startled were indeed juncos.

And then there is the junco's beak. Seriously, their beaks are what sold me. Juncos' beaks are a soft pearly pink, in fact I think they look just like the inside of seashells. Many of them even have a slight swirl of white throughout. Set in their soft gray faces, the pink is even more stunning. What a surprising delicate finishing touch to this diminutive bird!

If their looks don't do it for you, how about their sound? Walking outside on a spring day as they're flocking up to migrate north is like walking into a room filled with old Atari games (minus the crinkle of Cheetos bags). Multiple tones of buzzing, rattles, trills and pipping fill the air as the birds busily flit about the yard gleaning leftover Nyjer seed.

Yes, Nyjer seed. For years it was believed that white millet (not to be confused with the yucky red millet that very few birds eat) was the preferred seed of juncos. Recent studies by the Wild Bird Feeding Industry (WBFI) show that juncos actually prefer Nyjer seed. To be honest, I always thought juncos did prefer Nyjer seed since they've always been under our Nyjer seed feeders. I've even had them perch on our Nyjer tubes with the finches. They don't do well with the cling feeders, so I keep a mix of Nyjer tubes and metal mesh feeders around. A handful of Nyjer seed tossed under all the feeding stations twice a day keeps our flock of more than 60 well fed and happy.

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