Good Natured: Dark-Eyed Junco And Other Signs of Spring

Good Natured: Dark-Eyed Junco And Other Signs of Spring

  • EDITOR’S NOTE: This good-natured column was written by Pam Erickson Otto, the outreach ambassador for the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or potto@stcparks.org.

Well, it’s here. Can you feel it?

Spring snuck in at 4:37 a.m. on Saturday, March 20, and with it came a host of spring arrivals. The crocuses that battled gamely against last week’s snow now once again are showing their colorful blooms.

Daffodils are blossoming, tulips are forming buds and, glory be, the other day I heard a robin sing!

Signs of spring: A Common Grackle warns off a challenger at a backyard feeder.

These common and familiar signs of spring join a host of other happenings that herald the progression of the seasons. Skunk cabbage, our earliest blooming wildflower, is nearly done and soon will be sending out leaves; the maple sap, too, has pretty much completed its run and now is fueling the opening leaf buds.

Male red-winged blackbirds, staunch in their territory defense, are slowly but surely being joined by their multiple mates. The chipping sparrows have returned and are trilling their mechanical-sounding songs, and our quiet waterways have welcomed back the wood ducks.

Boy-o, I could go on and on. Woodland wildflowers like bloodroot and hepatica are waking up and greening up. Sandhill cranes, killdeer, eastern phoebes and grackles are back.

(Oh I know, a lot of people think those big mobs of grackles are obnoxious — especially when they overtake a birdfeeder. Take a minute, though, and take a closer look at those large flocks. You’ll see immature male and female redwings, brown-headed cowbirds, European starlings and maybe, if you’re lucky, a rusty blackbird, a spring bird ranked as Uncommon by Kane County Audubon.)

But you know what? All these spring arrivals are accompanied by a pretty impressive list of spring departures too.

Signs of spring: rough-legged hawk.

We don’t tend to acknowledge them as much. In fact, with the exception of melting snow, which I think we can all agree was plentiful enough this winter and doesn’t need to stick around any more, many telltale winter signs slip away with nary a nod.

Except for this year. Thanks to COVID-19, many of us have turned (or returned) to the outdoors, where it’s easy and even instinctive to physically distance from others. Our observation skills are honed. What better time to look for what’s missing?

If you’re a birder of country roads and open fields, you’ll soon notice that the snow buntings, horned larks and Lapland longspurs are starting their journey back north. Ditto for rough-legged hawks, which breed waaay up in the Arctic.

(Fun fact: These hawks get their name from the way their feathers cover their legs all the way down to the toes, like a pair of long, fluffy pants.)

If you fancy waterfowl, get ready to say goodbye to the common mergansers, goldeneyes, buffleheads and scaups, the ring-necked ducks and tundra swans. If you really pay attention, you’ll also observe a change in the numbers and behavior of our numerous Canada geese.

The resident birds stick around and pair off while the migratory species take off for points north.

Signs of spring: sparrows galore.

If watching the birds at your feeder is your thing, it’s time to start noticing subtle shifts in species visiting the buffet. White-crowned, fox and American tree sparrows breed in northern Canada so they’ll be taking off soon to begin that journey.

White-throated sparrows have a shorter distance to cover, as their breeding range stretches from central Wisconsin to southern Canada, so they might stick around a little longer.

Then we’ve got what I consider the poster bird of springtime departures, the dark-eyed junco. Already birders anxious for True Spring (which on some days might feel like Early Summer) are watching for this species — often referred to as snowbirds — to disappear from their feeding stations.

Signs of spring: the poster child just might be the dark-eyed junco.

It’s hard to tell by their name, but juncos are members of the Passerellidae, or New World sparrow family.

(If you follow bird taxonomy—well, first, hat’s off to you! I struggle to stay on top of the changes resulting from genetic analysis. But second, Passerellidae is a relatively new family name, having been split off from Emberizidae a few years back.)

Their scientific name, Junco hyemalis, also gives a clue to their behavior in our area; it translates from Latin to “junco of the winter.”

Like their sparrow cousins, they feed heavily on seeds year-round, although they do supplement their diet with insects during the breeding season. This penchant for seeds — especially sunflower and millet — combined with their stable population numbers, might even qualify them for the No. 1 Bird at Birdfeeders in Kane County.

Well, it would if there was such an award.

Alas, as the days get longer and the temperatures continue to warm, our days with the juncos — and assorted songbirds, waterfowl and raptors from the north — are limited. As they take their leave for the next several months, we bid them adieu and turn our eyes toward the fireflies, bullfrogs and other signs of summer. Which, in case you’re wondering, will arrive at 10:32 p.m. Sunday, June 20.

We’ll see more than 15 hours of sunlight that day and likely experience temperatures around our historic average of 80F. I can almost feel it!

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