Birding: The Often Ignored Dark-Eyed Juncos

A male dark-eyed junco sits on a snowy perch. The white underside is in sharp contrast to the black and browns above. These plain birds come into their true glory when they are in flight — the scissor-like flash of the white tail feathers and the angel-like, wispy transparency of their wings are shown. (Kimberly Mason / For The Chronicle)

For Bird Lovers: Snow Angel and Waffle Feeding Tricks Detailed

By Kimberly Mason
For The Chronicle

It’s easy for the plain plumage dark-eyed junco to get lost among the more glamorously garbed gold finches of summer. But when winter comes around and the snows start to fall, these flashy little birds with their black to gray heads (black for the males, slate gray for the females), white undersides and reddish-brown backs can be seen in large numbers, flitting around in the brush and foraging for fallen seed under the feeders.

Their crisp markings and the flash of the bright white tail feathers, shown only when they are in flight, make them easy to identify. Now that the cold weather has set in, it will be common to see 15 or 20 of these nervous little sparrows scratching around underneath your seed feeder.

Juncos are often seen with small flocks of golden-crowned and white-crowned sparrows, so look around for the juncos’ friends. I think perhaps the little juncos enjoy the company of these more gregarious birds because of their tendency to knock a lot of seed out of the feeders and onto the ground in their enthusiasm.

Foraging at ground level, juncos enjoy some of the more overlooked seeds, the millets, which other birds ignore in the more popular seed mixes.

The dark-eyed juncos are often called “snowbirds” because when you see them in winter, they resemble their surroundings: gray above and white below.

Snow Angel by a Bird Sighting

Speaking of snowbirds, Beckie Daniels of Burnt Ridge e-mailed a picture of a snow angel made by a bird last Wednesday.

A bird that apparently lost its balance left this “snow angel” at the Burnt Ridge home of Beckie Daniels during last week’s snowfall. The wing and tail feathers are clearly visible in this print, which is the size of a crow or slightly smaller. Daniels said she couldn’t imagine what might make a bird go “splat,” but she admired its ability to get back in the air without destroying the print. (Kimberly Mason / For The Chronicle)

In the e-mail she said, “This is what I found when we got back to our house on Burnt Ridge yesterday!! Looks like a snow angel, but it’s a ‘bird print!!’ You can see the wing and tail feathers!

About crow size, or smaller. It’s right off the corner of the steps to our deck. I have no idea why a bird would go “splat” and it certainly got out of it w/o messing up the print! Just cool!!”

It certainly was cool, Beckie, thank you for sharing the picture.

It certainly pays to keep your eyes open for the little gifts of nature’s smaller creatures — in more ways than one.

The Waffle Trick Update

A few have told me that they tried placing a peanut butter-covered waffle treat in their suet feeders or laying them on porch railings — mentioned here last week and learned of in Russ Mohney’s column of December 2005. They report that they have had some success.

A Rochester friend said a young flicker found the carefully prepared waffle she had placed in a suet feeder and, much to her delight, he ferociously protected the area until he had his fill of the treat.

Another friend said he wasn’t able to entice any birds to the waffle until he took the re-frozen treat back inside the next morning to warm it up over a flame. When he took it back outside, he said the flicker that found it acted like he hadn’t had a meal in days.

Perhaps the smell of the warm peanut butter drew him in?

My own birds have warmed up to the idea and I have had a few takers, but still, not the feeding frenzy that others have experienced.

I was excited to find the waffles on my porch railing completely consumed yesterday afternoon — that is until I watched my border collie check the rail before she left the porch for her afternoon outing.

I have to add a warning about the waffles: when you are buying the waffles, don’t stand in the frozen waffle section of your grocery store for too long or you may be tempted into buying more than you came for. I speak through experience.

By the way, I had to pop my “microwave-ready” bacon under the broiler for a minute or two to crisp it up after a full four minutes in the microwave. That’s a bit frustrating, considering the fact that the package said it was “super easy” and I’d have “crispy bacon in just two or three minutes.” Anyone else have that same experience?

Kimberly Mason is a freelance writer who enjoys watching and photographing the wildlife in her own backyard in Cinebar. Contact her via e-mail at kz@tds.net.