Monday, January 27, 2014


What a winter we’ve had so far!  Even though I’ve heard the beginnings of the earliest spring bird songs, the cold, blustery weather has made recording them close to impossible.

But since it has been so cold, and often so snowy, I thought it might be interesting to take a closer listen to our Dark-eyed Juncos.  People sometimes call them “snowbirds,” since they arrive in the fall, overwinter here in balmy Ohio, and then return north in the spring. 

Unless you live in the NE corner of Ohio, you won’t be seeing and hearing Juncos after April.  In counties such as Lake, Geauga, Ashtabula, Summit, and eastern Cuyahoga, however, Juncos can be found in the cool, forested hemlock ravines – and increasingly even near human residences in outlying suburbs and rural areas.   When I assisted my friend and birding mentor Dick Rickard with the Ohio Breeding Bird Atlas II during 2008-2011, we found nesting Juncos all along the Chagrin River.  I was surprised by how common they actually are!

For all of us, there are many opportunities to listen to their variety of calls and animated squabbles around bird feeding stations and in woodland and edge habitats around the state.  From autumn until their departure in the spring, you may hear something like this:

This array of sounds is from a sizable flock of Juncos feeding under the bird feeders at the Holden Arboretum in Lake County, Ohio.  Listen again and see if you can hear some percussive “tick” or “chip” calls, and somewhat musical, rapid “kew-kew-kew, “calls.  You may also hear little bursts of trilled songs at different pitch levels as they squabble and quarrel about their personal space and access to seeds.

Juncos typically feed on the ground, and this is usually where you will find them at bird feeding stations and in the wild.  However, some have learned to adapt to other feeding options, like this Junco at the Holden Arboretum.

Even those of us who don’t live near nesting Juncos are likely to hear them singing in April as the wintering flocks prepare to leave and other Juncos arrive from farther south on their northward spring travels.  The Dark-eyed Junco’s song is a springy trill that’s generally no more than two seconds in length followed by a pause, then repeated.  Some trills sound faster than others, as you’ll hear in these examples of NE Ohio Juncos.
This first song was recorded at Case Western Reserve University’s University Farm on 5-13-09 and the trill is rather fast.  The Farm, by the way, is near the Chagrin River in Hunting Valley on the eastern edge of Cuyahoga County.  Juncos nest all over the upper and lower farm in the hemlock ravines, and one nest was located in a small, potted evergreen outside the door of the Manor House.  

The next song was recorded in the Pierson Creek ravine at the Holden Arboretum in Lake County on 3-23-10.  This is exactly the habitat where one would expect to find nesting Juncos, and he was not in a group with other birds.  My guess is that he was already on his territory.  To my ears, this male’s trill is very similar or perhaps just a bit slower that the CWRU Farm male.

The last of my three soloists is a Junco who was singing right above my head as I stood on a little bridge on Holden’s Woodland Trail on 4-23-10.  I found him in this same area on subsequent occasions that year.  His trill is considerably slower than that of the preceding males.

We have a flock of Juncos in our Cleveland Heights back yard every winter, and the males will start singing in early March.  This duet, recorded at Holden on 3-7-11, is example of what I can expect to hear in the back yard and elsewhere in a little over a month.


Soon, many more Juncos will fill our back yard wildlife habitat for a couple of weeks, and there will be singing everywhere in the neighborhood.  And then…no Juncos until the winter flock returns in the fall.   I’ll have to go just a little east of Cleveland to hear their sweet songs accompanied by a brook or a tiny waterfall in a hemlock ravine.

I have two Junco-related suggestions to help make the rest of this long, cold winter more enjoyable: 

1. I encourage you to get the new educational DVD, “The Ordinary Extraordinary Junco” from the Junco Project.  This fascinating film was produced by biologists and filmmakers from Indiana University, and I found it absolutely engaging.  The only charge is a $5 donation for materials and shipping.

2. Go listen to wintering Juncos as they fuss, feed, and quarrel under any collection of bird feeders.  See what you can observe about their behavior, and hear how many calls you can identify.  You may even hear little bursts of song as individuals assert their dominance and their claim to the food source.    

Here’s one more recording of that feisty flock at Holden:

I suspect that as you study and listen to winter birds, you’ll find the remaining weeks of winter passing a little more quickly than you might have expected.  

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