By Maxine Tinney
As winter approaches in central Arizona, the common Dark-eyed Junco sometimes congregate along with other sparrows and warblers in coniferous forests. They may be seen pecking in leaf litter or searching for food in the underbrush. In backyards with feeders, they’re hopping and foraging on the ground for millet, sunflower seeds, and corn. A sudden movement or flash of noise may send the flock flying to nearby trees flashing their bright white tail feathers.
In general, the Dark-eyed Juncos have a pale pinkish bill, gray/black heads, gray or brown backs and wings, gray/brown/pinkish flanks, and gray necks and breasts with a white belly. The Dark-eyed Junco species (Junco hyemalis) of the sparrow family in Yavapai County may consist of at least five recognizable populations or subspecies based on different sizes and colorations, genetics of the birds, how the bird communicates, and the frequency of hybridization.
The smallest subspecies is the Oregon with dull gray or black head, reddish brown back and pinkish brown flanks. The Pink-sided subspecies has a blue-gray hood with blackish lores around the eyes and extensive pinkish-flanks. The slate-colored varies from pale brown to slate gray, while the gray-headed and Red-backed have a well defined rufous mantle on their backs. The Red-backed also has a bi-colored bill with the top being blackish and lower mandible being pink.
Most Dark-eyed Junco will retreat northward as spring approaches, but some remain year-round at higher elevations. During migration they enjoy feasting on a variety of insects including caterpillars, moths, beetles, flies, ants, and wasps. Flight is very agile with continuous flapping of wings and pumping of the tail. The female Dark-eyed Juncos seem to prefer males with more white tail feathers showing, and after courtship and mating, the female builds a nest of twigs, leaves and grasses and uses her body to shape the nest for her clutch of three to six gray/bluish white and heavily spotted eggs which hatch in less than two weeks. Under the watchful guard of the male, the chicks grow quickly. As fall approaches the broods and family begins the southward migration to warmer areas and may again continue the circle of life by wintering in central Arizona.
Visit Prescott Audubon Society at PrescottAudubon.Org. Contact them at Contact@PrescottAudubon.Org.
After retiring as an overseas educator of mathematics, science, and computer in International Schools for some 30 years, Maxine Tinney enjoys traveling, hiking, biking, photography, birding, and the environs of central Arizona.