Published Sunday, February 17, 2013

Stanley Tate column: Making drab yards elegant on winter's day


Special to The Newnan Times-Herald

On many a winter’s day our yard is as shabby and unpromising a spot as the eye can rest upon: the rocky soil, the dead-gray of patio and wall, the bare branch, the doom-sprinkled sky.

The tone of our yard, however, is greatly heightened by the presence of a small flock of juncos, the dressiest of winter birds. Even the drabbest yard achieves something like elegance when a junco lights in the foreground — a well turned-out little guy who looks as though he is on his way to an afternoon wedding.

We mark the beginning of fall and the end of winter by the arrival and departure of the snow birds from and to their breeding grounds north of here. The name “snow birds” comes from the junco’s plumage — leaden skies above and snow below. Ornithologists used to think there were four separate species of juncos: white-winged, slate-colored, Oregon, and gray-headed. Now they are all considered one species, the Dark-eyed Junco, with six subspecies: Oregon, pink-sided, white-winged, slate-colored, gray-headed, and red-backed. You can find them in your field guide with the sparrows and their allies. Most people think of them as snow birds because they see them only in the fall and winter.

Juncos are a favorite at winter birdfeeders throughout North America. They usually winter in the same place each year and stay in mixed flocks with a stable dominance hierarchy. You can see the signs of the hierarchy at your feeder. Dominant birds will lunge and peck at subordinates, who will give way or leave. Occasionally, two birds will square off, face-to-face, and repeatedly throw their heads up and down — a head dance display. Sometimes their confrontations escalate to a fight. The birds will claw at each other and rise up into the air. Most of the time these disputes are settled by displays alone. As spring approaches, however, juncos start singing and doing flight pursuits — males chasing females — and head-to-head confrontations between males become more frequent and more serious.

Males are dominant over females in winter flocks. Since females don’t get as much to eat in flocks composed of many males, they tend to winter farther south, away from most of the males. To estimate the gender distribution of the flock at your feeder study the colors of the individual birds. Birds that are dark gray to black above are usually males. Birds that appear brown above are usually females.

Although winter still possesses the land, the days are noticeably longer. Winter’s charms will fade slowly away and with them the juncos. First the males will leave for their summer territories, and the females will follow in a week or so.

Two pairs of bluebirds are already inspecting our nest boxes, woodpeckers are beginning to drum, cardinals are singing on their territories, snowdrops are blooming, and daffodils are starting to show color. In a month all will be changed.

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