By Susan Benson,
CNHM Director of Education
Driving along the road this past week, I was greeted by the white flash of tail feathers from a quickly departing flock of birds from the roadway. Many of us have probably observed that each flock flies away from the road, and often lands back on the road behind us as we travel along. This spark of color belongs to the dark-eyed junco, one of the most common birds found in North America. For northern Wisconsin, a junco is a year-round resident, but juncos still migrate from Canada to disperse throughout much of North America during the winter. As they migrate, they are often observed scavenging seeds along the roadsides. The flash of color we see as they fly occurs as they pump their tail to show their white outer tail feathers. Their coloring mimics a winter scene with its dark gray above and snow white below. We can also enjoy these birds in other places as well, on woodland walks or at our bird feeders.
Juncos are primarily seed-eaters, feeding on many plants we might be familiar with – lamb’s quarters, chickweed, and sorrel, which make up three-quarters of their diet. They are one of the few bird species that usually prefer millet and cracked corn over sunflower seeds. In the spring, they often add insects such as caterpillars, beetles, moths, ants, and flies to their diet.
When foraging, dark-eyed juncos are seen hopping along the ground, scratching like a chicken at the leaf litter, or sometimes maneuvering successfully through low, tangled undergrowth to find food. During the summer males are very territorial, but in winter, they form large flocks of ten to thirty birds that can also include several other sparrows. Junco flocks have a “pecking order,” as early migrants have a higher status than later arrivals.
If you see a bird flock and are interested in identifying the dark-eyed junco or other species, grab a bird field guide and try to identify white-throated, white-crowned, chipping, or American tree sparrows. Also, don’t be surprised if what you first think is a junco or other sparrow is actually a yellow-rumped warbler, as they are one of the other last migrants to leave our area. Migrate yourself outdoors to discover what birds you can find!
For 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility and exhibits, the Curiosity Center and Brain Teasers 2, in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. Also find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about exhibits and programs.