Dark-eyed junco.

Upon mention of “snow bird,” thoughts turn to residents who escape our winter climate for sunnier, southern locations. There is, however, a bird that summers in Canada and Alaska below the timberline and reliably flies south to winter here: the dark-eyed junco. It was once called the “snowbird.” 

The junco is solely a North American bird.  In the western United States, it may live all year in the same location or may migrate short distances. In the eastern U.S. and extreme northern Mexico, with some exceptions for mountains where it probably lives year-round, it begins arriving from its northern breeding grounds in mid-fall. It frequents feeders, staying close to shrubbery for protection from weather and predators.

The male junco has a dark grey back, a snow-white belly and a light pink bill. The female has a lighter, brownish back. Both sexes display their outer white tail feathers in flight and in connection with communication, courtship and dominance.

The name “junco” has a convoluted history. Our junco was first described by English naturalist Mark Catesby, who traveled to America between 1729 and 1732. In his “Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands,” he christened a little bird in Virginia and Carolina the “snow bird,” because it was seen only in winter and most frequently in snow. “Whether they retire and breed in the North (which is most probable) or where they go, when they leave these Countries in Spring, is to me unknown.”

Carl Linneaus learned of the snow bird from Catesby. He first classified it as a bunting, Emberiza, species hyemalis, meaning “of the winter” (Thomas Jefferson knew the snowbird by that Latin name). Then it became a finch, Fringilla, and finally, in 1758, the genus became Junco, Latin for “water-loving reeds or rushes.” Hence today’s, Junco hemalis.

Both Alexander Wilson, the father of American ornithology, and artist John James Audubon, the renowned artist, wrote of the “snow bird” in the early 1800s. Wilson wrote, “I cannot but consider this bird as the most numerous of its tribe of any within the United States. From the northern parts of the district of Maine, to the Ogeechee River in Georgia, a distance, by the circuitous route in which I travelled, of more than 1800 miles, I never passed a day, and scarcely a mile without seeing numbers of these birds, and frequently large flocks of several thousands.”

John James Audubon explained: “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.” Audubon stated, “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.” (In 1939, Evanston North Shore Bird Club members protested Quebec’s ingredient of 2,000 juncos in an aspic salad honoring the King and Queen.)

Then, in 1884, the newly formed American Ornithological Union (AOU), a coterie of top professional ornithologists, began the systematic naming of North American birds. The committee wavered between junco and snowbird, so asked for a vote from readers of its journal, “The Auk.” In January, 1885, by count of 18-6, snowbird lost, despite the fact that junco is a misnomer for a bird that prefers dry woodland edges and grassy fields, not wetland rushes. One Canadian voter argued for junco because there is no snow in its summer home.

Early in 1920s, researchers found that the friendly, abundant, easily captured and compliant juncos were perfect subjects for study. These researchers have performed experiments on many behaviors including migration, social structure, feeding, flocking and song.

Juncos are creatures of habit.  The same individuals are said to return to the same wintering grounds, integrate newcomers into the flock as they arrive, follow the same daily route, and roost overnight in the same evergreens. They forage on the ground in small flocks or individually in leaves or snow, hopping from front to back as they search for fallen seeds. “It is a true hopping bird,” says Audubon, “and performs its little leaps without the least appearance of moving either feet or legs….”  Juncos are fascinating to watch as they enforce their pecking order while jostling for position under feeders.

In spring, our juncos become increasingly restive.  Males start chasing other males and singing from high branches.  One morning they are gone, on their way back to their snow-free summer breeding grounds, mostly north of the Canadian border. After courtship, the female builds her nest of grasses, mosses, bark shreds and twigs, although males will sometimes furnish the materials. Nests are always under protective covering, often in the roots of an upturned tree, under rocks, logs or overhanging grasses, usually on the ground.  Four eggs is a typical clutch, and they may have two broods a season. Nestlings are fed spiders and insects.

Female juncos also sing. In “Coyote and Junco,” a Zuni legend, Coyote comes upon Old Lady Junco, who is singing while winnowing her seeds. He asks to learn her song.  She teaches him once, twice, three times; each time, he forgets. The fourth time, she refuses. In anger, he attacks her, but bites instead into a rock under which she is hiding.  And that explains why, today, the coyote has no molars.

In 1983, the AOU grouped several species of juncos with dark brown irises, regardless of geography or plumage, into the dark-eyed junco. Watch for change as DNA analysis comes in.

Libby Hill

Libby Hill is the author of "The Chicago River: a Natural and Unnatural History. She has been writing about birds and trees and Evanston's natural history for the Roundtable since 2004.