Wild Files: A small bird with a big journey visits the valley

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Many folks think of January as a lifeless cold month. That is not the case as all of nature is still outside living in one state or another.

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Courtesy photo by Larry Umthun

A dark-eyed junco.

With the winter of 2014 upon us, its unpredictable weather patterns and wildly changing air temperatures cause all living organisms to shudder or sweat depending on the hour. The white alder down along Mill and Blue creeks are already sprouting fresh green catkins, getting ready to bloom. The stems of several species of native willows are turning intense yellows and oranges as they start the slow process towards breaking dormancy if warmer weather prevails by the end of this month.

There are scores of small gnats and midges flying around with systems filled with anti-freeze, enjoying every sunlit site in the Valley. The great horned owls, red-tailed hawks and black-billed magpies all are preparing to nest, setting up nesting territories to defend.

Listen for calling pairs of great horned owls after sunset — the males have a low octave and the larger females a higher octave. They often call in duets.

With this column, however, I’d like to visit with you about a small native bird that lives in large, active noisy flocks with great sparks of ambitious life during its winter visit to the Valley.

The dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis) is a 6.3-inch-long species of sparrow. They are a striking bird, with the male’s plumage being very noticeable. He has a black hood, pink bill, rusty back or mantle, black tail with white outer tail feathers that it flashes continuously as it moves about over the ground and through the brush. The females are a drabber version of the male for good reason — to provide camouflage against predators while on the nest.

There are five groups of dark-eyed juncos in North America. These groups are said to be in a “complex,” meaning that a lot of work has been done and is still ongoing by ornithologists and other biologists to determine sub-species status.

Currently there are the Oregon juncos found throughout the Pacific Northwest, the pink-sided juncos found in Pacific Northwest, the slate-colored juncos found east of the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic seaboard, the white-winged junco of the Colorado Rockies and the gray-headed junco” that live in the mountain ranges of the interior Great Basin in the western United States.

All five groups fall under the common name of dark-eyed junco. There are two other separate species found in the desert Southwest and south into Central America.

Juncos in Walla Walla County breed and nest on the ground on steep slopes and cutbanks high in the Blue Mountains. They construct a tight woven nest of grass, plant stems and some leaves. They lay four eggs and set on them from 18 to 21 days, depending on air and ground temperatures.

As many as three out of four of the first clutches are lost to chipmunks, the junco’s main nesting predator. Rodents take many bird nests early in the spring. After mid-May the rodents back off and start to feed on insects and local native seeds. Most junco pairs will double clutch and lay a second set of eggs. These chicks have the greatest chance to survive and reach adulthood.

Unnatural spring ground fires are also a big deal to these ground nesters, as are elk, deer and cattle that will eat their grass nests on occasion when found.

Juncos spend all spring, summer and early fall in the mountains. By late September watch for them as they began to drift into lower elevations by following creek and river drainages out of the mountains into the Valley. During the breeding season they are in pairs; after late September they form large flocks with more than 100 members and often with several other sparrow species mixed in.

They feed on the ground and will eat millet, cracked corn and chopped sunflower seeds, if you choose to feed them. They also greatly appreciate clean fresh water at feeding stations during cold snaps. Watch for them and enjoy their calls and energy as they grace your winter yard.

By the middle of March many juncos are moving out of the Valley, slowly following the snow melt high into the Blue mountains. They will start nesting by mid-April at some lower elevation sites. Please remember they are a protected species and as such if you have issues with wandering house cats please do not set up bird feeding stations near cover.

Remember, life is good!

Mike Denny is president of the Blue Mountain chapter of the National Audubon Society. He can be reached at m.denny@charter.net., or by calling weekdays between 6-8 p.m. at 529-0080.

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