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Leaves turn yellow, orange and red. Jack-o-lanterns and ghosts pop up. In election years, signs pepper yards. These signals of fall disappear by mid-to-late November.
But the dark-eyed junco, a small grey-and-white perching bird, arrives in Evanston around the end of September and will be here all winter. It breeds in Alaska and Canada and winters here in yards and parks. Its antics cheer birdwatchers until around May, when it flies back north to breed.
This year, the juncos were late arriving in my neighborhood. It wasn’t until Oct. 17 that I was finally treated to my first sighting of two chasing each other in my back yard. That same day, I saw them all over the Clark Street Beach Bird Sanctuary. Forty were reported at Skokie Lagoons.
Juncos are particularly meaningful to me. My first bird book, given to me at age 5, was titled “From Robin to Junco – Stories of Birds and What They Do” by Mary Isabel Curtis. A little girl named Ann was lucky enough to have an Uncle Jim who explained the ways of birds she could see in the city.
I didn’t have an Uncle Jim, but I had this book to explain the habits of the birds I could see on the grounds of my Baltimore home. About the junco, Uncle Jim tells Ann: “He is a neat-looking bird, slate-gray above and white underneath. His bill is a light pinkish color, and he has two white outer tail feathers that flash into sight when he flies. We can see him dodging busily in and out of the bushes in the garden, day after day, or hopping around on the ground looking for weed seeds, or maybe a caterpillar, if it isn’t too cold for a caterpillar to be out. … He is quite friendly and isn’t afraid to come up to the door to eat.” I couldn’t wait to see one.
Juncos visit heated bird baths and feeders, and they do not seem particular about the type of seed you provide.
There is rarely just one junco. If you see one, you can be pretty sure that others are nearby.
Juncos can be a quarrelsome bunch. At a feeding station, or more likely under a feeder, they often seem to be jostling for position. Watch as they signal to each other who is boss.
You will be able to discern their pecking order: Males, which are a darker color, are at the top of the hierarchy, then the lighter-colored females, then immatures, which rank at the bottom. This may be entertainment for bird watchers but it is serious business for the birds, although I’ve never seen them get hurt during the commotion.
Juncos are creatures of habit. Chances are that the junco you see in your neighborhood this year is the same junco you saw last year. The same individuals are said to return to the same wintering grounds, follow the same daily routes and roost overnight in the same evergreens or thick shrubs. They forage on the ground in small flocks, hopping from front to back among the leaf-litter as they search for fallen seeds. (Raking some leaves under shrubs or into your garden provides good habitat for overwintering birds and native bees.)
Mourning doves, house finches, house sparrows, cardinals, goldfinches, woodpeckers (red-bellied, downy and hairy), chickadees, nuthatches, blue jays, Cooper’s and red-tailed hawks, and robins – all are the usual birds that visit our winter neighborhoods. From robin to junco, birds enliven those short winter days.