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People report American robins lingering this winter

Photo by fotocitizen/Pixabay.com • An American robin fluffs its feathers to stay warm on a cold, wintry day. While the robin is a migratory bird, it’s not unusual for many individuals to forego migration in order to stay on their nesting range the whole year.

A stroll on some walking trails through the woods on Jan. 11 near my home resulted in my first 2020 observation of American robins. The presence of robins during the winter can be a hit-or-miss affair. After I posted my sighting on Facebook, I received plenty of anecdotal evidence to support my belief that many robins decided to skip migration this past fall and spend the winter in the region.

Jennifer Bauer, park superintendent for Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee, posted that she saw a flock of about 25 robins at the park on Jan. 10.

Anne Powell Cowan, a resident of Bristol, Tennessee, commented that she has seen robins in Bristol all winter. “They never left,” Anne wrote in her comment. “We also have a red-headed woodpecker at our farm in Sullivan County.”

Betty Lacy in Elizabethton, Tennessee, posted that she is hosting a “swarm” of robins. “They love my tall hemlock hedges,” Betty wrote. “I know there was well over 100 of them. They have made little openings all over the hedge where they go in and out!”

Photo by Bryan Stevens •  American robins, prominent in lawns and gardens during their annual spring migration, will turn their attention to nesting duties as soon as spring arrives. For now, some are content to spend the cold winter season a little farther north than some of their kin.

Vivian Hicks has noticed plenty of robins, too. “Robins have been hopping around and feeding in my yard in Southwest Virginia,” Vivian posted.

Mimi Hale has noticed the same in Elizabethton, Tennessee. “Robins have been all over my yard for the last several weeks,” she commented on my post.

Dawn Peters, who resides in Jonesborough, Tennessee, posted that robins have been present at her home since before Christmas.

Gloria Walton Blevins in Damascus, Virginia, also indicated the robins haven’t flown south. “They have been in Damascus all winter,” Gloria commented.

Teresa Treadway in Elizabethton, Tennessee, offered a humorous take on the abundance of robins. “Mine were so confused, they never left,” Teresa posted.

It was left to Catherine Romaine Henderson of Greer, South Carolina, to leave a question on my post. “Does that mean an early spring?” Catherine wondered in reaction to this winter’s abundance of robins.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American robin perches on a branch. The robin is one of the best-known song birds in the United States.

The American robin is indeed widely held to be a harbinger of spring. Furthermore, the robin is a popular American bird. In fact, this bird has been designated the official state bird by Wisconsin and Michigan.

In truth, many robins forego migration to endure a few months of cold weather. Their ability to shift their diet from earthworms and insects to fruit and feeder fare helps robins eke out a living. Robins remain an abundant bird but their fondness for co-existing with humans can leave them vulnerable to pesticides applied to lawns and gardens.

According to the website, “All About Birds,” the American robin nests three times a year. On average, however, only 40 percent of robin nests succeed at fledging young. Even once out of the nest, young robins are vulnerable. The website estimates that only 25 percent of each year’s fledged robins will reach November. So, the young robins that join some of the large flocks people are seeing in the region are birds that have beaten the odds.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Even once out of the nest, young robins, such as the one pictured here, are vulnerable. Experts estimate that only 25 percent of each year’s fledged robins will reach November.

Even the robins that do depart the region each fall don’t migrate far. Many robins that spend the summer in Canada or the United States only migrate as far as the Gulf States, southern Florida, southern California, Baja California and Mexico.

Robins are such friendly and engaging birds. If we can have them near us for 12 months of the year, who’s going to complain? They have even adapted to take food at feeders. If you’d like to try your luck at attracting robins to feeders, know that they like their sunflower seeds hulled. They will also eat mealworms, fruit, peanut hearts and suet. Robins prefer to feed on the ground or on an open platform feeder.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • While American robins like fruit when its available, they also spend a lot of time feeding on earthworms and insects.

Dreaming of winter finches flocking south

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Red crossbills use unique beaks to pry seeds from a conifer cone. These birds are among the so-called “northern finches” that occasionally stage massive winter migrations fueled by food shortages in their usual range. They are also nomadic residents throughout the year in northeast Tennessee and western North Carolina.

I recently got a shoutout on Facebook from Tom McNeil, a longtime birding friend and a neighbor here in the mountains of Northeast Tennessee. Tom asked if I’d been seeing any red crossbills on my side “of the ridge” and informed me he had been seeing these odd-beaked birds for the past couple of weeks.

I hadn’t noticed any crossbills and told him so, but I am definitely keeping alert for them after Tom’s notification. Every winter I hope my feeders will be visited by representatives of a group of birds known collectively as “northern finches.” This loose grouping consists of a half dozen species — purple finch, pine siskin, evening grosbeak, pine grosbeak, white-winged crossbill, red crossbill and common redpoll — that periodically stage irruptions from their traditional northern ranges to push south in large numbers during the colder months.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A red crossbill uses its unique beak to pry seeds from a conifer cone. These birds are among the so-called “northern finches” that occasionally stage massive winter migrations fueled by food shortages in their usual range.

I’ve been feeding birds since the winter of 1993, and over the years, the first three species I listed have graced my feeders. Although I haven’t seen any this winter, pine siskins and purple finches have continued to be occasional winter visitors. Sadly, however, I haven’t been visited by showy evening grosbeaks since the late 1990s. The last time I saw an evening grosbeak in the region was back in 2000.

I’ve never laid eyes on a common redpoll, although I spent several hours 20 years ago staking out a yard in Shady Valley, Tennessee, in an unsuccessful bid to observe a redpoll that had been a reliable visitor at a feeder in that small community.

I have seen red crossbills, but my observations of these birds have always taken place during the summer months. Pine grosbeaks and white crossbills are almost unheard of in the region, and I haven’t had opportunity to visit the nesting summer ranges of these birds.

So, as the weather turns cold each year, hope springs eternal that perhaps this will be the winter that will bring some of these northern finches to my feeders, or at least to a feeder in the general area.

The factor that drives these irruptive northern finches to come south is food — or the lack thereof — in their usual ranges. When seed crops are poor in the north, these seed-eating birds may wander as far south as the Gulf States in search of supplemental food sources such as feeders stocked with sunflower seed.

Photo by Public Domain Photos/Pixabay.com • Crossbills and other finches often migrate in source of food.

The red crossbill is a specialist when it comes to foraging for its food. The bird uses its unique bill to open the cones of various conifers. The upper and lower mandibles of the bill are twisted in a way to make them cross when the beak is closed, hence the name “crossbill.”

Worldwide, there are only five species of crossbills — the red crossbill of North America, Asia and Europe; the parrot crossbill of northwest Europe and western Russia; the Scottish crossbill of Scotland; and the white-winged crossbill of Canada, the northern United States, including Alaska, as well as Asia and northeastern Europe. There’s also the endangered Hispaniolan crossbill of the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean.

Photo by George Gentry/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A male evening grosbeak perches on the side of a sunflower-stocked feeder.

W. Herbert Wilson Jr. wrote an article about the northern finches for the Oct-Dec. 1999 edition of “North American Bird Bander.” Wilson noted that supplemental food, such as feeder fare, can influence the migratory habits of many birds, including these finches. He cited the example of black-capped chickadees, which have been shown to demonstrate an increased chance of survival during lean winter times when they have access to feeders. He also noted that the provision of food at feeders has helped birds like the tufted titmouse, house finch and Northern cardinal extend their range northward. In part, Wilson theorized that more people are feeding birds closer to the northern climes where these birds live. As a result, the long-distance irruptions are no longer necessary to find supplemental food.

Other theories have also been advanced by other experts, including changing migratory routes, diminishing overall finch numbers and climate change. Theories aside, I will continue to hope some of these birds wing their way toward my feeders this winter. If I’m lucky, this could even be the year the evening grosbeaks return! If anyone is seeing any of these “northern finches,” I’d

love to hear about it. Contact me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American goldfinch visits a feeder for sunflower seeds

Birds made news headlines in 2019

Photo by Public Domain Photos/Pixabay.com • California condors have gradually returned to parts of their range beyond California. A family of condors now resides in Zion National Park, marking a return of these birds to Utah.

 

Birds made headlines in 2019. Some species, having been presumed extinct, were rediscovered — some in the mostly unlikely of places. One of the major bird-related stories of the year involved a stark warning about a sharp decline in overall bird numbers. Below, in no particular order, are some of last year’s top stories about our fine feathered friends.

69 years old and a mother again

The Laysan albatross known as Wisdom and her mate, Akeakamai, became parents again in 2010. Wisdom is at least 69 years old and ranks as the world’s oldest known banded wild bird. Her mate’s name, by the way, translates as “lover of wisdom.” The chick hatched in February at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial. Wisdom has raised more than 30 chicks in her lifetime. While Laysan albatrosses are not considered endangered, some of their kin are threatened with extinction.

Photo by J. Klavitter/USFWS • Wisdom, one of Midway Atoll’s oldest residents, became a mother again in 2019. The female Laysan albatross is approaching her 70th birthday.

While walking to church

The year started with some good birding news when a bird thought extinct was rediscovered in a suburb of Medellín, Colombia, on Jan. 7, 2019. Rodolfo Correa Peña was headed to a church service when he spotted an odd bird in a garden. The bird turned out to be an Antioquia brushfinch, a bird known previously only from museum specimens. Peña, an engineering student with an interest in birding, knew the local brushfinches and recognized that the bird was different. He secured photos of the bird and stunned the scientific community with the rediscovery of a bird presumed extinct.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • Endangered California condors receives some good news in 2019..

Condors soaring high

California condors continue to delight with their success stories, even extending their range beyond California. Estimates indicate that 300 condors exist in the wild with about 200 more birds in captivity for use with breeding programs. Evidence that the work to preserve the species is working was provided this year in Utah’s Zion National Park, which became home to a condor named “1K” because it is the 1,000th chick hatched as part of an extensive condor restoration program. The chick hatched in May and took a rather clumsy first flight in September. The chick represents the first condor born within Zion National Park in more than a century. In 1987, when the condor population totaled only 27 known condors, wildlife officials captured the surviving wild birds and made them part of an existing captive breeding program. In 1992, the condor recovery program started to release the birds back into the wild. There are now more condors flying free in the wild than are maintained in captivity.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A large flock of Great Egrets flies over the Watauga River in Elizabethton. There is mounting evidence that many bird populations are on the decline.

Fewer birds?

Bird enthusiasts were shaken by the publication in September of an article warning that the number of birds in the United States and Canada has fallen by 29 percent since 1970. The analysis, published in the journal “Science,” is an extensive attempt to determine what is happening to avian populations. The results shocked — there are 2.9 billion fewer birds taking wing now than there were 50 years ago.

A painting of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker by Mark Catesby, an English naturalist.

Hope

Yet, in words penned by poet Emily Dickinson, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” Birds are among the most resilient lifeforms on the planet. If humans can get out of the way and quit making life more difficult for the feathered inhabitants of the planet, birds are more than capable of rebounding. The federal government needs to maintain safeguards and regulations that are in place to protect birds while ordinary people must alter their ways by shunning pesticides, preserving a variety of habitats and simply giving more regard to the fellow creatures they share the Earth with. If we can do these things, the birds will be fine. Don’t take my word for it. Look at the examples of Wisdom the Laysan albatross and a California condor known as “1K.”

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Canada geese forage in a field in Unicoi County, Tennessee.

Egrets, snow geese sightings enliven winter birding

Photo by Dewey Fuller • A great egret stands amid a flock of Canada geese at Middlebrook Lake in Bristol, Tennessee.

It’s 2020, but I feel like I am still playing catchup with the birds found in the last few weeks of 2019. We might not have had much snow so far this winter, but birds with white plumage have stirred up some excitement in recent weeks. The birds are finally showing some winter movement as they turn up in some unlikely places and at unseasonable times. While I have felt that the winter’s off to a slow start in regards to birds, some other unusual visitors have popped up in various locations in the region.

Dewey Fuller, who resides near Middlebrook Lake in Bristol, Tennessee, emailed me recently to report an unexpected bird and share photos of the feathered visitor.

He correctly identified the bird as a great egret based on its white plumage and dark legs. “Another unusual visitor to Middlebrook,” Dewey wrote in his email.

The waders — herons, egrets, storks — usually reside in wetlands and coastal areas, but they are prone to wander after the nesting season. Their wandering usually takes place in late summer and early fall, so the Middlebrook visitor was a tad out of season.

While it is unusual for a great egret to visit the region in December, I know from personal experience that a twelfth month visit from this graceful wading bird is not unheard of. The first great egret to ever visit my home arrived on a snowy evening in December many years ago. This past summer heralded a more seasonal visit from only the second great egret to visit my home.

Joe McGuiness, an employee with the U.S. Forest Service who resides in Erwin, recently observed a great egret at a pond along the linear walking trail in Erwin, Tennessee. I’m not sure why these stately white birds have been present in December, but they certainly attracted attention with their unexpected presences.

Photo by StockSnap/Pixabay.com • A snow goose comes in for a landing, showing off its black flight feathers that contrast with its otherwise all-white plumage.

The egret was only one recent mostly all-white bird to put in an appearance. I found a single snow goose in a cornfield along Old Johnson City Highway about a half mile from the Lynch Farmhouse/Gallery in Unicoi, Tennessee shortly before Thanksgiving.

Snow geese are extremely abundant, but their migratory flyways usually keep these geese far from the mountains and valleys of Northeast Tennessee.

The snow goose has a second color phase known as a “blue goose” that has plumage that replaces the white feathers of the snow goose except in the head, neck and tip of the tail. The white phase of the species boasts all-white plumage except for black flight feathers. Adults have pinkish-red legs and bills. Serrations along the bill create the diagnostic “grin patch” that helps people distinguish the goose from the smaller related Ross’s goose. Male snow geese are typically somewhat larger than females.

Snow geese breed well north of the timberline in Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Siberia. In winter, they head south to spend the colder months across much of the United States and even Mexico.

Snow geese numbers have exploded in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In fact, some experts worry that the sheer abundance of this goose is doing damage to the fragile tundra habitat these geese use for breeding. According to the website “All About Birds,” hunting for snow geese in the eastern United States was stopped in 1916 because of low population levels. Hunting was allowed again in 1975 after populations had recovered.

Although they remain a hunted game bird, an occasional snow goose achieves significant longevity in the wild. The oldest snow goose was an individual documented as being 27 years and six months old that was shot in Texas in 1999.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A snow goose swims amid Canada geese at the pond at Fishery Park in Erwin, Tennessee, in February of 2018. .

Cardinals do their part to make the winter season brighter

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • A male Northern cardinal lands on a snowy perch. Cardinals are perfect symbols for the Christmas season with their bright red plumage.

The shopping days before Christmas are getting fewer, so I hope everyone has had time to find gifts for everyone on their lists. My own sincere wish to readers is that everyone gets to enjoy a great holiday that just might also include watching some birds.

Often, when we think of the birds of the winter season, our thoughts focus on some of the less-than-colorful feeder visitors — the brown sparrows and wrens, the black and white chickadees, the drab American goldfinches that look so unlike their summer appearance.

There’s one bird, however, that makes an impression in any season. The Northern cardinal, especially the brilliant red male, stands out against a winter backdrop of snow white, deep green or drab gray.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Northern cardinal seems much less descriptive of this popular bird than such common names as Virginia nightingale and Kentucky redbird.

Over the years, the Northern cardinal has also become associated with the Christmas season. How many Christmas cards have you received this holiday season with a cardinal featured in the artwork? I’d wager that at least a few cards in any assortment of holiday greetings will feature the likeness of a bright red cardinal.

Cardinals, also known by such common names as redbird and Virginia nightingale, are easily recognized backyard birds. I never tire of observing these colorful birds. Cardinals are easily lured to any backyard with plentiful cover to provide a sense of security and a generous buffet of sunflower seed.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Even the female Northern cardinal offers a subtle beauty not quite as showy as the male.

Cardinals accept a wide variety of food at feeders. Sunflower seed is probably their favorite, but they will also sample cracked corn, peanuts, millet, bakery scraps and even suet. The cardinal is also one of only a few birds that I have noticed will consistently feed on safflower seed.

While we may get the idea that cardinals feed largely on seed, that is a misconception based on our observation of the birds at our feeders. When away from our feeders, cardinals feed on insects and fruit, including the berries of mulberry, holly, pokeberry, elderberry, Russian olive, dogwood and sumac.

There’s no difficulty in identifying a cardinal. The male boasts crimson plumage, a crest, a black face and orange bill. The female, although less colorful, is also crested. Female cardinals are soft brown in color, with varying degrees of a reddish tinge in their feathers, particularly in their wings. Immature cardinals resemble females except young cardinals have dark bills.

Cardinals are a widespread species, ranging westward to the Dakotas and south to the Gulf Coast and Texas. The southeastern United States was once the stronghold of the cardinal population. In the past century, however, cardinals have expanded their range into New England and Canada. These birds have even been introduced to Hawaii.

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • A male cardinal looks splendid against a snowy background.

At feeders, cardinals mingle with a variety of other birds. Their preference for dense, tangled habitat is one they share with such birds as brown thrashers, Eastern towhees, Carolina wrens and song sparrows. In general, however, cardinals directly associate only with their own kind. Cardinals will form loose flocks during the winter, but these flocks are never as cohesive as those of such flocking birds as American goldfinches. Cardinals are more often observed in pairs. For such a bright bird, the male cardinal can be surprisingly difficult to detect as he hides in thick brush that conceals his presence. Cardinals are nervous birds, however, and usually betray their presence with easily recognized chip notes.

It’s not surprising that such a popular bird has also become associated with many trappings of the Christmas season.

“You see cardinals on greeting cards, stationery, paper plates, paper napkins and tablecloths, doormats, light switch plates, candles, candle holders, coffee mugs, plates, glasses, Christmas tree ornaments and lights, bookmarks, mailboxes, Christmas jewelry,” writes June Osborne in her book The Cardinal. “And the list goes on. Cardinals have become an integral part of the way that many people celebrate the holiday season.”

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Northern cardinals are a favorite for makers of Christmas ornaments.

I can be included among such people. My Christmas decorations include an assortment of cardinal figurines and ornaments. There are other birds — doves and penguins for example — associated with the holiday season, but for me the holidays magnify the importance of one of my favorite birds. The cardinal, in its festive red plumage, appears made to order for a symbol of the holiday season.

There’s additional evidence to put forward as testimony to the popularity of the Northern cardinal. It’s the official state bird of seven states: Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. Only the Northern mockingbird, which represents five states as official state bird, even comes close to the Northern cardinal in this respect.

Even once the holidays are past, there’s nothing like a glimpse of a Northern cardinal to add some cheer to a bleak winter day.

Fall bird count celebrates 50 consecutive years, finds 118 species

Photo by Bryan Stevens  • Chipping sparrows, such as this individual, showed up for the Fall Bird Count in good numbers.

The 50th consecutive Elizabethton Fall Bird Count was held on Saturday, Oct. 5, with 29 observers in eight parties. Participants tallied 118 species, which is below the recent 30-year average of 125 species. Windy conditions throughout the day and dense fog on the higher mountain tops contributed to the reduced variety. The all-time high on this count was 137 species in 1993.

The yearly survey is not limited to Carter County and Elizabethton. The long-running count includes parts of the adjacent counties of Unicoi, as well as Johnson Sullivan and Washington.

The total follows:

Canada Goose, 635; Wood Duck, 97; Mallard,173; Blue-winged Teal, 30; and Green-winged Teal, 3;

Ruffed Grouse, 3; Wild Turkey, 56; Common Loon, 1; Pied-billed Grebe, 7; Double-crested Cormorant, 10; and Great Blue Heron, 35.

Black Vulture, 78; Turkey Vulture, 139; Osprey, 7; Northern Harrier, 3; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 2; Cooper’s Hawk, 9; Bald Eagle, 12; Red-shouldered Hawk, 5; Broad-winged Hawk, 2; and Red-tailed Hawk, 13.

Killdeer, 35; Spotted Sandpiper, 1; Lesser Yellowlegs, 1; Ring-billed Gull, 1; Rock Pigeon, 402; Eurasian Collared-Dove, 1; Mourning Dove, 153; and Yellow-billed Cuckoo, 1.

Eastern Screech-Owl, 10; Great Horned Owl, 5; Barred Owl, 2; Chimney Swift, 244; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 7; and Belted Kingfisher, 24.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Eastern Screech-owls, such as this individual, were the most numerous of the owls found on this year’s Fall Bird Count.

Red-headed Woodpecker, 2; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 50; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 7; Downy Woodpecker, 36; Hairy Woodpecker, 6; Northern Flicker, 41; and Pileated Woodpecker, 17.

American Kestrel, 16; Merlin, 2; Peregrine Falcon, 1; Eastern Wood-Pewee, 12; Least Flycatcher; 1; and Eastern Phoebe, 82.

Yellow-throated Vireo, 1; Blue-headed Vireo, 18; Philadelphia Vireo, 1; Red-eyed Vireo, 7; Blue Jay, 347; American Crow, 442; and Common Raven, 10.

Tree Swallow, 118; Carolina Chickadee,141; Tufted Titmouse, 82; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 6; White-breasted Nuthatch, 28; Brown Creeper; 1; Winter Wren, 2; Marsh Wren, 1; and Carolina Wren, 114.

Golden-crowned Kinglet, 5; Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 1; Eastern Bluebird, 114; Veery, 1; Gray-cheeked Thrush, 6; Swainson’s Thrush, 37; Wood Thrush,15; American Robin, 212; Gray Catbird, 23; Brown Thrasher, 9; Northern Mockingbird, 56; Eurasian Starling, 555; and Cedar Waxwing, 70.

Ovenbird, 3; Northern Waterthrush, 3; Black-and-white Warbler, 4; Tennessee Warbler, 51; Kentucky Warbler, 1; Common Yellowthroat, 6; Hooded Warbler, 3; American Redstart, 7; Cape May Warbler, 1; Northern Parula, 4; Magnolia Warbler 6; Bay-breasted Warbler, 36; Blackburnian Warbler, 4; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 4; Blackpoll Warbler, 4; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 8; Palm Warbler, 56; Pine Warbler, 3; Yellow-rumped Warbler, 4; Yellow-throated Warbler, 2; and Black-throated Green Warbler, 7.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Male American redstarts are unmistakable warblers in their orange, black and white plumage.

Eastern Towhee, 53; Chipping Sparrow, 46; Field Sparrow, 11; Savannah Sparrow, 2; Song Sparrow, 126; Swamp Sparrow, 4; and Dark-eyed Junco, 73.

Scarlet Tanager, 5; Northern Cardinal, 120; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 67; Blue Grosbeak, 1; and Indigo Bunting, 27.

Red-winged Blackbird, 194; Eastern Meadowlark, 14; Common Grackle, 1; Brown-headed Cowbird, 11; House Finch, 36; Pine Siskin, 8; American Goldfinch, 99; House Sparrow, 19.

Long-time count compiler Rick Knight spotlighted some notable misses, including Green Heron, Common Nighthawk, Eastern Kingbird, Loggerhead Shrike, White-eyed Vireo, Barn Swallow, House Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Hermit Thrush, Prairie Warbler, Lincoln’s Sparrow and Red Crossbill.

“The crossbills were missed because Roan Mountain was completely socked in with fog all day,” Knight explained. He added that only a few shorebirds were found partly due to shortage of habitat as well as the drought in the region at the time of the count.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Wild turkeys often form flocks in autumn and early winter.

Winter’s dark-eyed junco provided inspiration for first column

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • The dark-eyed junco is a fairly common winter resident in the region. Rather widespread, different races of the dark-eyed junco are found throughout the North American continent.

I wrote my first bird column on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1995, which means this weekly column will mark its 24th anniversary this week. This column has appeared over the last 20 years in a total of six different newspapers, which I regard as a personal achievement as well as an accomplishment for our feathered friends. It’s on their behalf that I pen these weekly efforts to promote conservation and good will toward all birds. “For the Birds” has appeared in the Bristol Herald Courier since June of 2014.

Photo by Bryan Stevens •  Dark-eyed Juncos often delay their winter arrivals to the first snows of the season.

I’ve played detective, helping people identify everything from “rain crows,” or cuckoos, to Muscovy ducks and double-crested cormorants. I’ve observed unusual birds, including white pelican, brant and roseate spoonbill, in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia and spotlighted them in these columns. I still take delight in the kaleidoscopic parade of colorful warblers that pass through the region each spring and fall as well as the fast-paced duel of ruby-throated hummingbirds. I also offers to sunflower seed and other supplemental food for the resident birds like Carolina chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Known as “snowbirds,” Dark-eyed Juncos are hardy birds even in the winter season.

My first column focused on a common visitor to yards and feeders during the winter months. In fact, dark-eyed juncos should be returning to the region any day. Here, with some revisions I have made through the years, is that first column.

•••••

Of all the birds associated with winter weather, few are as symbolic as the dark-eyed junco, or “snow bird.” The junco occurs in several geographic variations.

John V. Dennis, author of “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding,” captures the essence of the junco in the following description: “Driving winds and swirling snow do not daunt this plucky bird. The coldest winter days see the junco as lively as ever and with a joie de vivre that bolsters our sagging spirits.” The dark-eyed junco’s scientific name, hyemalis, is New Latin for “wintry,” an apt description of this bird.

Most people look forward to the spring return of some of our brilliant birds — warblers, tanagers and orioles — and I must admit that I also enjoy the arrival of these birds. The junco, in comparison to some of these species, is not in the same league. Nevertheless, the junco is handsome in its slate gray and white plumage, giving rise to the old saying “dark skies above, snow below.”

Just as neotropical migrants make long distance journeys twice a year, the junco is also a migrating species. But in Appalachia, the junco is a special type of migrant. Most people think of birds as “going south for the winter.” In a basic sense this is true. But some juncos do not undertake a long horizontal (the scientific term) migration from north to south. Instead, these birds merely move from high elevations, such as the spruce fir peaks, to the lower elevations. This type of migration is known as vertical migration. Other juncos, such as those that spend their breeding season in northern locales, do make a southern migration and, at times, even mix with the vertical migrants.

During the summer months, a visit to higher elevations in southwest Virginia such as Whitetop Mountain or Mount Rogers is almost sure to produce sightings of dark-eyed juncos. Juncos may nest as many three times in a season. A female junco usually lays three to six eggs for each nest, which she constructs without any assistance from her mate.

Photo by Ken Thomas •  Dark-eyed Juncos are also known as “snow birds” because of their tendency to flock to feeders ahead of a bout of snowy weather.

Juncos are usually in residence around my home by early November. Once they make themselves at home I can expect to play host to them until at least late April or early May of the following year. So, for at least six months, the snow bird is one of the most common and delightful feeder visitors a bird enthusiast could want.

Juncos flock to feeders where they are rather mild-mannered — except among themselves. There are definite pecking orders in a junco flock, and females are usually on the lower tiers of the hierarchy. Females can sometimes be distinguished from males because of their paler gray or even brown upper plumage.

Since juncos are primarily ground feeders they tend to shun hanging feeders. But one winter I observed a junco that had mastered perching on a hanging “pine cone” feeder to enjoy a suet and peanut butter mixture.

Dark-eyed juncos often are content to glean the scraps other birds knock to the ground. Juncos are widespread. They visit feeders across North America. The junco is the most common species of bird to visit feeding stations. They will sample a variety of fare, but prefer such seeds as millet, cracked corn or black oil sunflower.

There’s something about winter that makes a junco’s dark and light garb an appropriate and even striking choice, particularly against a backdrop of newly fallen snow.

Of course, the real entertainment from juncos come from their frequent visits to our backyard feeders. When these birds flock to a feeder and began a furious period of eating, I don’t even have to glance skyward or tune in the television weather forecast. I know what they know. Bad weather is on the way!

•••••

If you’d like to share your first sighting of dark-eyed juncos as the temperatures get colder, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Although more comfortable on the ground, juncos will come to hanging feeders for sunflower seed.