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Juncos, members of the sparrow family, are so common we sometimes take them for granted. - Courtesy ibc.lynxeds.com

Untold stories of the dark-eyed junco

There have been many times, coffee cup in hand, when I have watched the juncos outside and thought I should write about them. The stories are just a little harder to find for some species.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Dark-eyed juncos are birds everyone has at their feeder in winter — all year if you live above the valley floor. They are old friends but usually background birds receiving little special notice.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Juncos may not be called sparrows, but they are. They are in the family Emberizidae along with all the other sparrows and towhees. Yes, towhees are sparrows, too, just a little larger than the others. Juncos lack the usual stripes of sparrows, except for the very young. Recently fledged young in late spring and early summer wear a full complement of stripes but these are quickly lost in the mid-summer molt as they don the dark hood and rosy sides of the adults. In case you are wondering, juvenile towhees are striped too.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Why no stripes? I suspect it has to do with the habitat in which they breed. They are the only forest sparrow in our region. Instead of inhabiting grasslands where stripes make it hard to see among the long, narrow leaves of grass, stripes do little in the filtered sunlight of a forest understory.{br class="hardreturn" /}
What is noticeable are the four white tail feathers, two on each side. This is more than most. If a sparrow or other bird has white in the tail, it is usually just one feather on each side or simply white spots on the tip of the tail. Why white at all? There are at least two reasons. First, it is a way to communicate with others of its kind. White outer tail feathers are common among many species that flock. A flash of white out of the corner of a bird’s eye, and it knows it is still with the flock. If a predator appears, all a bird has to do is keep the tail folded to conceal the white.{br class="hardreturn" /}
As I watch the juncos at my feeder, the tail opens for an instant, flashing white with each hop as it feeds. All is well.{br class="hardreturn" /}
The second reason has to do with escape from predators, once discovered. One might think white is not a good color for escaping the eye of a predator, unless you live in snow country, of course. White catches the eye. A sharp-shinned hawk rushing a feeding station scatters birds everywhere. The hawk, seeing white, pursues the eye-catching signal. It follows the white everywhere until the junco freezes in cover folding its tail. The white disappears. The hawk pursing the white “flag” loses its lock on its prey. Escape!{br class="hardreturn" /}
This flash and hide strategy works for many species. Try chasing a cottontail. White, white, white, nothing. Where did it go? Its strategy is to run like crazy and then sit on its tail. Works great. As a kid in summer I used to chase grasshoppers that flushed in the meadow. They show many beautiful colors, some are red, some black and yellow, and some lime green. All flashy. A few are even turquoise blue. Then they land some distance away. The bright colors vanish beneath sandy brown and mottled outer wings. The bright banner is suddenly gone. Good luck finding the grasshopper.{br class="hardreturn" /}
I’m sure juncos have more stories to tell, but this will have to do for now.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.{br class="hardreturn" /}

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