Speaking of Nature: The northern junco: One name fits all

  • This adult male junco is snacking on a sunflower seed on a snowy day. Note his much darker gray feathers that are almost black. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

  • This female junco has feathers that are a lighter shade of gray with hints of coffee-brown mixed in. Also note the tail, which shows one of the bright white outer feathers that are hidden when not in flight. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

For The Recorder
Published: 1/25/2022 1:51:53 PM
Modified: 1/25/2022 1:50:36 PM

This morning, as I sat at my computer and prepared myself for some writing, I went through my email to see what might be what. I found my inbox full of emails from some familiar old friends like Irene and Angela. I also found messages from some new people like Mary, Clem, Noah, Cathy and Sally. All of them were very much appreciated and I made sure to write back to you all.

Of all the messages that I received there was one that happened to coincidentally match up with a bird species that my mother mentioned to me on the phone when last we spoke. Clem wrote in about a bird that he thought might be a junco except for the fact that, “it didn’t have a white striped tail.” Well, Clem, today is your lucky day. The junco was available on my species rotation and I have a couple photos that might clear things up a little.

First off, let’s consider this bird’s name. When I was a kid, this bird was called a slate-colored junco. This made a lot of sense because the adult male has a plumage consisting of extremely dark gray feathers on its head, wings, back and tail. The only other color on the adult male is feathers of a pure titanium white on the breast and belly. The line between these light and dark feathers is so straight that I have often imagined a bird that has been dipped in white paint. But juncos are also called “snowbirds” sometimes and one could just as easily say that the snow has stained the birds feathers when they move about on the ground in search of food.

A problem arose when it was determined that there were all sorts of juncos spread across the United States that had slightly different looks, but were in fact the same species. I my private library I possess an odd little publication with the title, “Obsolete English Names of North American Birds and Their Modern Equivalents.” Published by the U.S. Department of the Interior, this remarkably useful little “book” lists 17 different names for the slate-colored junco. It all became very confusing because of the regional differences.

This is when the American Ornithologists Union stepped in and attempted to make some sense out of it all. With the swipe of a pen those 17 names became obsolete (hence the cool book) and the species were “lumped” together under a new name: the northern junco. As a result, my Peterson Field Guide from 1980 says “slate-colored junco,” but my newer books identify the bird as the “dark-eyed junco.” The only thing that hasn’t changed is the species’ scientific name: Junco hyemalis.

The name “junco,” comes from the medieval Latin word “iuncus,” which refers to plants called “reeds.” This is an odd choice for a bird that spends none if its time in the types of habitats where reeds are located, but that’s the name nonetheless. The species name “hyemalis” makes a bit more sense. Another Latin word, “hyemalis” simply means “winter.” So, without “getting into the reeds” on this one, the translation of the bird’s scientific name is something like, “the winter bunting.”

Regardless of what the bird is called, it is a fairly easy bird to identify. As I previously mentioned, adult males have a bold color pattern with “black above and white below.” Females have the same exact pattern, but their darker feathers are a paler shade of gray and some coffee-colored brown feathers can also be seen. As for the striped tail, I think I can help with that.

In flight, the junco has a dark tail with bright white stripes on the outermost edges. These “stripes” are in fact the outermost tail feathers, which are pure white instead of gray. When the bird is in flight, with the tail feathers spread, they are easy to see and are often what helps me to identify juncos from a distance. When not it flight, the feathers are folded up underneath the tail and cannot be easily seen. Luckily for me, I have hundreds of junco photos and I found one that shows the white tail feathers on a bird that is not in flight.

The junco is one of the most numerous birds across the country and at one time or another it is likely that most people have seen one. Before television, computers and phones stole so much of our collective attention away, people used to go outside and observe nature on a more consistent basis. As a result, John James Audubon once wrote, “There is not an individual in the Union who does not know the little Snow-bird.” In another part of my private library I have a large selection of original John Burroughs books, and in one of them there is a very, very old photograph of a junco in the snow. It is comforting to know that these birds are so widely spread across the landscape and across time.

So turn off the TV, put down the phone, rub the digital sand out of your eyes and turn your attention to the outside world. Sprinkle some birdseed in a spot that is easy to watch and it is likely that a junco will show up shortly thereafter. They are present in our area throughout the year, but they really make an appearance at feeders in the wintertime. I gave up with the various common names and simply call them juncos. In my notes I shorten the name to “JUNC” and I love that first day in fall when I can finally declare that there is “JUNC” on my porch.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 24 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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