Variability: juncos

Recent episodes in the fauna report from my house in Palo Alto.

I remind you my entire engagement with the outside world is through my little walled-in front patio, where I grow plants in containers and try to attract birds to entertain me; mostly I watch all this from the inside, through the big windows by my worktable.

The most recent development has been the reappearance of a pair of LBBs (little brown birds) / LBJs (little brown jobs / jobbies), who’d been absent since February (when they took dust baths in the shallow garden strip). This time, there was birdseed sprinkled on the ground outside my window, so they came close enough for me to study them as they fluttered about, and they were clearly juncos.


(#1) A male slate-colored junco (from Wikipedia); my juncos have dark heads, but then each junco subspecies is immensely variable

Then I learned that JuncoWorld is a marvel of variability, so I should just settle for junco as the identifying label, and be satisfied that my birds are not rare Guadelupe juncos, though slate-colored juncos (or something not far off) wouldn’t be a bad guess.

Background on this blog.

on 6/9/20 in “The June flora and fauna report”, a note on LBBs (little brown birds) / LBJs (little bown jobs / jobbies) — a birders’ name for any of a large number of species of small brown perching birds, many of which are notoriously difficult to distinguish


(#2) An inquisitive scrub jay

on 6/27/20 in “Meet the Jays”, largely on the pair of scrub jays (or scrub-jays) that have become regular visitors to my patio, in particular to my bird feeder; an account of my unfolding relationship to them, in which they came to treat me as just a feature of their territory, and also a possible source of the peanuts they value so highly

And then… For a while, the jays then turned up regularly, every so often during the day, between 6:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. They turned out to be keen observers. So when Kim Darnell came to cut my hair, on the patio, the jays stayed away the whole time she was there (she didn’t elicit their alarm calls, but she counted as a stranger). But only a few minutes after she left, they were both back, and paying no attention to me; clearly they’d been observing, from some vantage point in the trees where we couldn’t see them.

Then a complication. On Monday 6/29 I saw a sleek roof rat prospecting in the garden strip and eating birdseed on the ground. On the ground, in the daytime, both not ordinary roof rat behaviors. I figured they’d been displaced when the landscapers trimmed back the vine-covered arbor next door. Hold that thought.

Then, for no discernible cause, the jays paid only one visit (that I noticed) on Tuesday 6/30 and on Wednesday7/1. They were clearly not policing the area, since that’s when the juncos began reappearing, many times a day (jays are aggressively territorial, and drive off all smaller birds).

On Thursday 7/2, having consulted Palo Alto sites on how to trap rats with peanut butter without also trapping birds that like peanuts — yes, a recognized problem  — Kim installed a rat trap inside a cardbord box in the garden strip. No rats yet trapped, but also no more jay visits. Maybe the box puts them off.

On the other hand, it’s seed-festival time for the juncos. And the reappearance of a rat means that the regime of poisoning that had eliminated every single type of fauna around me in the condo complex for many weeks was over. (Can squirrels be far behind, oh god?)

The Zenaida digression. Yesterday, a mourning dove settled for a while in the crape myrtle tree on the street in front of my house, studied the situation, and then flew off without risking getting on the ground in my patio.

From Wikipedia:


(#3) From Wikipedia: The genus was introduced in 1838 by the French naturalist Charles Lucien Bonaparte. The name commemorates his wife, Zénaïde Laetitia Julie Bonaparte, niece of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) is a member of the dove family, Columbidae. The bird is also known as the American mourning dove or the rain dove, and erroneously as the turtle dove … It is one of the most abundant and widespread of all North American birds. It is also a leading gamebird, with more than 20 million birds (up to 70 million in some years) shot annually in the U.S., both for sport and for meat. Its ability to sustain its population under such pressure is due to its prolific breeding; in warm areas, one pair may raise up to six broods of two young each in a single year.

… Mourning doves are light grey and brown and generally muted in color. Males and females are similar in appearance. The species is generally monogamous, with two squabs (young) per brood. Both parents incubate and care for the young. Mourning doves eat almost exclusively seeds

But the juncos, professor, the juncos. From NOAD:

noun junco: a North American songbird related to the buntings, with mainly gray and brown plumage. … Genus Junco, family Emberizidae (subfamily Emberizinae): three or four species. ORIGIN early 18th century (originally ‘reed bunting’): from Spanish, from Latin juncus ‘rush, reed’.

The species of my juncos is certainly the dark-eyed junco, but that’s not enormously informative. From Wikipedia:

The dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis) is a species of the juncos, a genus of small grayish American sparrows. This bird is common across much of temperate North America and in summer ranges far into the Arctic. It is a very variable species, much like the related fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca), and its systematics are still not completely untangled.

… The five basic groups were formerly considered separate species (and the Guadalupe junco frequently still is), but they interbreed extensively in areas of contact. Birders trying to identify subspecies are advised to consult detailed identification references.

Each subspecies is highly variable itself — photos of slate-colored juncos (which I think is what I’ve got), for example, are almost absurdly varied — and then the subspecies interbreed. Oh yes, there’s also disagreement about how many subspecies there are. In the circumstances, just be happy you’ve recognized a junco and go on from there.

The Wikipedia entry lists 7 (not 5) subspecies: slate-colored junco, white-winged junco, Oregon junco, pink-sided junco, gray-headed junco, red-backed junco, and the (rare) Guadelupe junco.

Populations of slate-colored juncos in my area are permanent residents (elsewhere, they’re migratory).

(They’re really very cute, but restless, oh so restless.)

Meanwhile, I’m trying to lure the jays back with whole peanuts.

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