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Anticipating spring with the Junco

I've come to hate the months of March and April. They represent a cruel time of teasingly warmer weather and balmy days, only to be snatched away in an instant and replaced with yet more snow and winter winds. It's as if the nasty neighbor kid who, in a strange magnanimous moment, gives you his prize marble. Then he takes it back with a vicious grin. I keep telling my wife there will come a day when we won't be around to experience these heartless attempts at spring. Instead there will be palm trees. And green grass. Until that time, we will continue to begrudgingly endure the gives and takes of changing seasons coming to the northern Great Plains.

In the midst of this, the birds seem somewhat nonplussed too. On warm days there appears to be a continuous green light to migrating birds, with flocks of waterfowl and other birds passing overhead and through our yards. When the weather turns bad, the winged creatures seem to disappear or stop altogether. One could reasonably say migration mirrors weather, and be pretty close to fact.

During last week's cold snap there was an example of this in my own yard. Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) were gathered like a horde all around my yard, numbering close to 50. This sparrow is not unfamiliar but numbers like this at my place are only seen in the spring and fall. I can only assume they would be merrily flying north were it not for the chilly conditions.

The Junco is a widespread bird that breeds from Alaska to Newfoundland and down the spines of the mountains in both the eastern and western U.S. However, it winters across much of the continent in great flocks. Locally it is easily seen in spring and fall where it feeds on seeds on or near the ground in yards, parks, or any weedy patch. In the depth of winter there are a few birds that remain here while most birds are farther south.

Flock dynamics have been well studied in the Dark-eyed Junco complex. Males will make up most of the northern winterers while females trend farther south. The theory is this gives the males a better chance in spring to claim prime northern nesting territory while the females can casually take their time arriving. Evolutionarily, this can be a roll of the dice. It represents a sort of balance between surviving the deep cold of winter versus first pick at nesting grounds.

As many as 15 races and 6 subspecies are identified in this species. Until 1973 these subspecies were considered separate. But so much hybridization occurs that they ended up being lumped into one. The common subspecies of the east (and in the Red River Valley) is the Slate-colored Junco. These are the nearly all black sparrows with pink conical bills. Females will be duller above, with an almost brown coloration. Both sexes have all white bellies. A trait all the races share is white feathers at the outer edges of dark tails, something easily seen in flying birds.

One day soon we will shed these remnants of winter and enter a full-blown stretch of spring. Around this time we will wake up, grab a cup of coffee and look out our window. The Juncos will be gone. With them will travel the hopes of another successful generation.

Until then, let's continue to savor the growing anticipation of these northbound sparrows. Their singing is reaching a crescendo; they know spring approaches. Someone please tell John Wheeler.