Friday, December 05, 2008

No Snowflake The Junco
Snowflake at the suet dough in February 2008.

Some of you might remember my posts last winter about Snowflake the leucistic adult female dark-eyed junco who was a winterlong visitor in our yard.

Well, Snowflake did not show up in October, when the first returning juncos did. And now, it's December and we've got at least 30 dark-eyed juncos scattered around the various feeders and fields—but all of them have normal-looking plumage.

Which makes me wonder what happened to Snowflake. Did she make it through the spring and summer and now is spending this winter somewhere else?Did a sharp-shinned hawk get her? A house cat? Did she collide with a radio tower? Did she die of natural causes?—most passerines are lucky to survive more than just two years. Or is she just not back here yet? I'm hoping it's the last one on that list.

Dark-eyed juncos are considered short-distance migrants. The distance between their boreal forest breeding range and their wintering range pales in comparison to the migration of a blackpoll warbler, which also breeds in the boreal forest but migrates to South America. Most juncos spend the winter within the United States and Canada. Some juncos, such as those that I see in the West Virginia mountains each spring, don't migrate at all.
We've got plenty of "normal" juncos around this winter.

We could always tell Snowflake because she looked more like a snow bunting than a junco. She was a perfect "marker bird"—a bird with an obvious and unique physical character that allows you to identify it as an individual. Otherwise, most individual birds of a single species are hard to tell apart, unless you get a really close look and spend some time looking for subtle differences.
Snowflake looked like a snow bunting at first glance.

Bird banders love to tell stories about trapping ruby-throated hummingbirds or chickadees at a feeding station. They'll catch a dozen birds and band them, but still more unbanded birds keep showing up. It's pretty amazing when you realize just how many individual birds of a single species might be visiting your feeding station, bird bath, or garden. You might THINK that that is Mr. Reddy the cardinal who always shows up right after dawn on the hopper feeder. But it may only be one out of 17 different Mr. Reddys that come for an early meal.

Marker birds allow you to be sure you are seeing the same individual bird. Last winter I was home a lot finishing up a book project, so I got to know Snowflake's routine. In the morning she was in the weedy edge along the orchard. In late afternoon she'd come to the deck railing around back for some suet dough. At night she roosted in the brambles along the spring trail, down the hill behind our house.

Sitting here at my desk today, watching the snow dance down, I can see a small pod of juncos kicking through the mixed seed under the pines. I'd like to look out and see a mostly white one for the third winter in a row. Guess I'll keep watching and hoping.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Dark-eyed Jumpo

In March of 1964, I was a two-year old kid sitting in a highchair at the window of my grandma Thompson's kitchen. It was a snowy morning on the farm and the feeders were mobbed with birds. This is the moment I called out my fist bird ID (according to Grandma Thompson).

"Junco!" I said, pointing out the window at the bird feeder. Gram swore that was my exact word—practically my first one! Of course it was not until 1968 or so that I met my spark bird.

If you've got a spark bird story to tell, why not share it with your fellow bird watchers via The Spark Bird Blog? We'd love to add your story to the collection. To submit your spark bird story, send it via e-mail to sparkblog AT

And speaking of bird names: The bird pictured above might better be called a dark-eyed jumpo, don't you think? This junco was photographed recently from the kitchen window of MY farm, about 15 miles from where the old family farm was, here in southeastern Ohio.

With all the bad news we get bombarded with on a daily basis, it's good to know that some things never change. In winter, at least here in the Appalachian hills, when the snow flies there will always be juncos.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Snowflake is Still Here

Snowflake the leucistic female dark-eyed junco was on the deck rail yesterday, eating suet-dough bits. It was so cold that she kept one foot or the other tucked in her belly feathers.

She is such a beautiful bird.

I hope she makes it back again next year. It'll be interesting to see if she continues to get whiter with age. For any new BOTB readers, here is Snowflake's story.

Here's hoping the sharpie over on Zick's blog does not come to BOTB hunting some junco white meat.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Snowflake the Junco

Looking out my home office window about a month ago, I spied with my little eye, a white spot on the green-turning-brown lawn. It was out under the pines where corn and mixed seed are scattered.

At first I thought it was a piece of tissue.

Then the white spot moved.

I got binocs on it and saw that it was a female dark-eyed junco but that it was leucistic, what most of us might mistakenly call "partially albino." There are no partial albinos. [Science Chimp chimes in: "That's like saying She's partially pregnant"] You either are or you aren't. Same thing is true with albinism.

Actual albino birds completely lack pigment. Their eyes are red. Their fleshy parts are pink. Their feathers are all white. They normally do not survive long for a variety of reasons (poor eyesight, difficulty of NOT getting noticed by predators, other genetic problems).

This bird intrigued me. It is leucistic--partially lacking in pigment. It's not only noticeable and beautiful, it's quite willing to come in to our front stoop feeder, to our studio feeders, and basically hang around the yard all day long.

I am calling this whitish dark-eyed junco Snowflake (awwwww!). She is easy to spot among the 50 or so juncos spending this winter with us.

I have yet to get a really good photo of her this year. I'm wondering if it's the same leucistic female we had here last year. This year's model is noticeably whiter. But what are the chances of two different leucistic female dark-eyed juncos showing up at our farm on consecutive years?

I have a lot of questions about this...
Does the amount of leucism change from molt to molt? Does it come on stronger with age?

Is this the same bird?
Well, I'd like to get your opinion on this.

Here is the December 2007 bird:

December 2007. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

And here is the December 2006 bird:December 2006.

Viewed from different angles, it's easy to see that the leucism is not uniform—she has one side that's whiter than the other.

Birds with noticeable physical traits (white feathers, abnormally long bills, a drooping wing) are known as marker birds. You can spot them as individuals.

I posted about our other marker birds last December here in BOTB, including several images of a whitish junco.

I'll keep you posted on her whereabouts. I just hope the sharp-shinned hawk does not prefer white meat...

Snowflake the leucistic junco.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Coattails of a Cold Front

Every year, like clockwork, the dark-eyed juncos arrive with the first cold front of the fall. This is usually around the time of the Big Sit--the second Sunday of each October.

We know we can count on that same cold front convincing all the bug eaters to leave, too. This includes favorite birds like, umm... warblers and vireos and tanagers and orioles--basically anything with bright colors and a beautiful song splits for points south. And we're left with the primarily earth-toned birds of winter. Do I sound whiny?

I love seeing the first junco, even though it means no more indigo buntings or hummingbirds. Not a real fair trade, but who said life was fair? Yes I DO sound whiny.

Last night the first cold front came through. No juncos yet, but I did see a fall-plumaged indigo bunting in the meadow. And I asked him to stay at least until Sunday morning so we could tally him for the Big Sit. After all, our farm is named Indigo Hill for the plethora of indigo buntings we have all summer long.

I fear he's got the urge for going and I guess he'll have to go...

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