When people from New Jersey flock south in the winter to escape the cold they are called "snowbirds." They get this moniker from one of our most common and delightful winter birds, the Dark-eyed, or Slate-colored junco. For nearly two centuries, the junco has affectionately been called the "snowbird." They got this nickname because huge numbers migrate south in the winter from higher latitudes into much of the United States as the snow begins to fall. For the most part, the junco is a true northern bird during the rest of the year, breeding at high elevations in mountains and all across the northern tier of North America.

When I was growing up in Central New Jersey, we always knew the junco as the Slate-colored junco. In the late 1970s, ornithologists lumped a number of previously separate species of juncos into one and renamed them all Dark-eyed juncos. This is the current official common name for the one we have in East Brunswick.

The junco is one of our most easily recognizable winter birds, gray on top and white below with a pink bill. In an early Audubon Publication they were described as "Leaden skies above; snow below" (Mr. Parkhurst) and "little gray-robed monks and nuns" (Miss Florence Merriam). Juncos also have white outer tail feathers that flash as soon as they fly. 

Juncos will visit feeders but are most often found on the ground beneath them scavenging seeds that have dropped. Many writers, including giants like Audubon, Bent and Thoreau, have written eloquently about the junco or snowbird. I've collected some of these to describe various aspects of their life history that can be easily observed. It is obvious from these writings that the arrival and behavior of the little winter snowbird was held as a high point of the natural year and a signal that the seasons had changed.

In 1831 Audubon noted “There is not an individual in the Union who does not know the little Snow-bird.” and in his journals from a trip to Louisiana “This is one of our winter visitants from the north, which, along with many others, makes its appearance in Louisiana about the beginning of November, to remain a few months, and again, when spring returns, fly off, to seek in higher latitudes a place in which to nestle and rear its young. So gentle and tame does it become on the least approach of hard weather, that it forms, as it were, a companion to every child.” Harking to a time before there was bird conservation, Audubon also noted "Their flesh is extremely delicate and juicy, and on this account small strings of them are frequently seen in the New Orleans market, during the short period of their sojourn in that district."

One of my favorite descriptions I found of the junco is about their call from a Mrs. Lawrence to the famous ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent: "the lovely tinkling chorus by the juncos in early spring, as if a myriad of woodland sprites were shaking little bells in an intensive competition." She also describes the tinkly junco "song" as tilililililili, tilililili-tilililili and tuituituitililili. Juncos often give these little calls in late winter and spring before heading north to nest so listen around the yard or in our parks for them. As Dr. Leon Hausman wrote in 1936 in "The Buntings, Finches and Their Allies of New Jersey," "These tinkling icy little notes are quite in harmony with the crisp winter days in which the birds delight."

Many poems have been written about the junco. I particularly like one published in The Warbler magazine in 1905 by Frank Sweet that conveys nicely in prose a little bit about the junco:

The Snowbirds

Which came first, the birds or the snow?

Or was it together they fluttered down?

The spirits in white, who seem to know

And talk with the spirits in drab and brown?

And which are the merriest ones at play?

The flakes which dance to the tune of the breeze,

or the birds which flutter and fly away,

And chatter and call from the nodding trees?

Enjoy the little black and white snowbird while you can, before too long they will head far to the north until next winter. Juncos can be found in all of our parks. Use the Friends Online Guide to East Brunswick Parks to find some places to look for them. The Guide is available at: http://www.friendsebec.com/parks.

For more information about the junco visit the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology website at www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/dark-eyed_junco/id/ac.

Published on the EB Patch 28 Jan 2012

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