The little gray birds of spring

When most folks think about the first birds of spring, they probably think of the robin or bluebird, or even ducks or gulls.
But to many, the most welcome spring birds are the juncos.
These little, unobtrusive birds arrive well before the snow has gone, and in the fall they don’t leave until winter is well upon us.
There are only two juncos found in Canada. One of them is a far western bird, never seen this far east, so you can’t make any mistake about this one.
Every junco you will see here will be a Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hymenalis). This is a relatively recent name. Most of you will know this wee bird by its old name, the Slate-coloured Junco.
Sparrow-sized birds, they primarily are seed eaters so you will find them on the ground, among the leaves or in the snow, looking for weed seeds or grass seeds.
They are very easily attracted to bird feeders, and are a very common sight (spring and fall) when seeds are out regularly for them.
Juncos are not spectacularly coloured at all—just gray and white. The male birds have dark (almost black) head, back, wings, and throat while the females and young birds usually are a bit lighter and with a brownish cast.
One very conspicuous mark is the white outer tail feathers which flash clearly as the birds fly.
They are not much for singing, either. Most of the time their conversation consists of miscellaneous chirps and twitters.
In the spring, you will hear the males burst into a trilling little song, like a tiny alarm clock ringing.
Some of the songs are a little more complicated than that, but they are still just variations on the trill.
Some juncos do nest in our parts of Northern Ontario, but the majority of them go further north—even as far as the tree line. They are really just passing through our area.
They always nest on or near the ground and are very secretive about their nests, hiding them under low branches or fallen trees.
In common with many of their sparrow relatives, juncos have an odd way of scratching on the ground. They jump up in the air and then rake back with both feet at once.
The ground near a feeder can be alive with these little jumping birds.
They tend to flock with sparrows, redpolls, and finches of various kinds.
Juncos spend the winter not too far south. In most places in the States, they are called snowbirds, although there are other birds to whom this name is more appropriate.
They drift around in small or large flocks—and seem to move together on signal.
You will see them moving randomly on the ground, looking like a bunch of gray leaves. Suddenly, as though an alarm went off, all will fly at the same time—the whole flock weaving and bobbing, rising and falling exactly in unison.
The robin undoubtedly is better known, but the first real harbinger of spring is the Dark-eyed Junco—the little gray bird of the spring snows.

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