EARTH LADY: Slate-colored juncos herald beginning of winter

There is nothing flashy about a slate-colored junco, but it is quite handsome in a subtle way. (Courtesy photo)

There is nothing flashy about a slate-colored junco, but it is quite handsome in a subtle way. (Courtesy photo)

When a blast of cold Arctic air finds its way south to Mississippi, even unreconstructed Southerners dream of wintering on an island in the tropics. It will not be politics or the IRS in pursuit that drives expatriates to secluded isles. It will be the frigid air. Ah, but then everything is relative, even the cold, and especially for some of our feathered friends.

There are many birds that winter in Mississippi, and the dark-eyed juncos think the Magnolia State is positively balmy, even in bleak mid-winter. These birds of the Sparrow family breed in the coniferous and mixed woodlands of Alaska and Canada, but traveling in large flocks, juncos migrate south in late fall. Juncos are abundant birds of fields, roadsides and suburban backyards and are a sure sign that winter is officially here.

The junco’s scientific name, Junco hyemails, is most appropriate. The genus name, Junco, means bird of bushes or reeds, and the species name, hyemails, literally, in Latin, means winter.

Locally, juncos are called “snowbirds” because their arrival frequently coincides with that of plummeting temperatures and winter storms. The dark-eyed junco used to be called the slate-colored junco, and was considered to be one of five North American junco species, but since they interbred wherever their ranges overlapped, scientists determined that they were all one species with a few variations.

Subsequently, in 1983 the American Ornithologists’ Union changed the name to dark-eyed junco. Symptomatic of her age and averse to change, ornithological or otherwise, the Earth Lady still refers to these little birds as slate-colored juncos or “snowbirds.”

There is nothing flashy about a slate-colored junco, but it is quite handsome in a subtle way. It is dark, Quaker gray with a white belly, pink bill, dark eye and white outer tail feathers that are a distinctive, identifying feature when it takes flight. As it is with most bird species, the female is more subdued in coloration than the male. A flock of Juncos brings to mind a gathering of pilgrims at Plymouth Rock and that first harsh winter.

Juncos are primarily ground feeders, but frequently visit backyard feeders to scrounge for birdseed that is dispersed on the ground by other birds or meddlesome, omnipresent squirrels. Thoughtful birdwatchers will scatter birdseed on the ground for these little gray birds and other ground feeders, such as mourning doves and white-throated sparrows, and they will put up the cat that salivates when the juncos arrive.

With winter’s arrival, we should all take inspiration from the “snowbirds,” and venture outside, even on a frosty day. The beauty of a winter landscape may seem a bit stark, but juncos think the fields and woodlands in winter are quite lovely.

The somber gray of slate-colored juncos belies their plucky spirit and cheerful disposition. A gathering of these little birds in a neighboring field or at the feeder can chase away the winter doldrums.

The Earth Lady by Margaret Gratz appears in the Daily Journal Home & Garden section once a month.