Wild Ideas: The quiet but omnipresent bird of winter

Golden Guides

The Golden Guides, published by Golden Press, were developed for school-aged children but are good starter guides for adults as well. Filled with interesting information and entertaining to read, the first one, on birds, was published in 1949. In their early days, the guides were commonly known by many people as “Zim” guides, for Herbert Zim, a naturalist who co-edited them with Vera R. Webster. They were written by those with expertise in the subject at hand.

The titles in the series expanded over the years to include books that were not field guides. More than 80 titles had been published by the mid-1990s, when Zim passed away. They were later acquired by St. Martin’s Press, which relaunched the series in 2001 under the general editorship of Webster.

When it snows here in Virginia, most birds (and other animals) usually take shelter. No matter how severe a snow storm, usually the first birds I see after it stops are juncos – dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis), to be specific.

For many reasons, I don’t regularly feed wild birds – cost, mess, the likelihood of the feed’s attracting more problematic wildlife and lack of room in my house to store birdfeed safely out of the reach of mice. To keep disease from spreading when birds congregate at feeders, the feeders should also be cleaned regularly, and I have enough trouble keeping the dishes I eat off clean.

Our native birds here in the Blue Ridge and its foothills generally have plenty of food, so feeding them is more about the pleasure we get from being able to view the birds than about their need. However, when it snows, and particularly when it’s icy, it becomes more difficult for most ground feeders, especially, to find the food they need. At that point I usually put out a little bit of feed, as was the case after the last two small snowfalls we had recently.

In the sparrow family, dark-eyed juncos are small (about six inches long) and have dark-gray to almost black tops and upper breasts (often described as “sooty”). These markings can vary among individuals and females’ “sooty” parts are more on the brown side. Juncos blend in well with Virginia’s bare winter landscape and can be pretty nebbishy until they flit about or take flight, displaying their bellies and some white tail feathers. The males often flash those white feathers aggressively when feeding close to other birds.

The dark-eyed junco, the most common forest bird in North America, lives in Virginia year round. Photo by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.
The dark-eyed junco, the most common forest bird in North America, lives in Virginia year round. Photo by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

There are other reasons why it’s easy not to take notice of juncos. They don’t chatter a lot or scold like wrens and don’t sing sweetly like their cousin, the white-throated sparrow. They also forage close to the ground, so we often don’t take notice of them until it snows, when their dark topsides contrast sharply with the white on the ground.

One of the most abundant forest birds of North America, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website (allaboutbirds.org), the dark-eyed junco ranges throughout the continent, depending on the time of year. According to the Virginia Fish and Wildlife Information Service’s website (vafwis.org/fwis), they also tend to migrate vertically, spending summers in higher elevations and heading for the warmer lowlands in winter, forming into small flocks.

The dark-eyed junco was one of the first bird species I learned to identify from my little set of Golden Guides, nature guides for kids published by Golden Press starting in 1949. My parents had given me a set of the guides in the late 1950s, when I was first learning to read and had already made my fascination with nature clear. The guides were informative, had lovely illustrations and each could easily fit in a pocket of my jeans.

I had the guides on birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, insects, fishes, rocks, minerals and stars. While I still have some Golden Guides in my reference collection, my original set did not survive my lugging them around as a kid.

When the early Golden Guides were written, our native junco in Virginia was thought to be among several junco species in the U.S. Its common name in the guides was “slate-colored junco.” With further research, scientists determined that there is only one species of junco native to the U.S., the dark-eyed junco, with several subspecies grouped under the general descriptions “slate-colored,” “white-winged” or “Oregon.”

Juncos nest here in Virginia in May in low cavities and are not picky about their nest sites as long as the sites are well hidden. As VaFWIS puts it, the cavities can be in “overhanging banks of streams and roads, upturned roots of fallen trees, ledges on a house, empty cans, etc.”

Foraging on the ground on the edges of woods, old fields, hedges, roadsides, city parks and home gardens for seeds in the winter, juncos add insects to the menu the rest of the year. The best way to feed them is to put seed on a platform or scatter it on the ground. I do the latter and, since birds tend to also poop where they eat, I tend to change the location slightly every time I put feed out. Among commercial feed options, juncos prefer sunflower hearts, Nyjer (mistakenly often called “thistle,” although it comes from an unrelated plant) and white proso millet, according to the National Bird-Feeding Society website (birdfeeding.org).

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 343 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”