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Dark-eyed Junco

Save Those Seedheads!

People have Echinacea (Coneflower) in their medicine cabinets for a number of reasons. One of the more prevalent ones is Echinacea’s purported ability to shorten the duration of the common cold and flu, as well as lessen the severity of symptoms.  It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that humans learned of the possible benefits of this plant by observing the presence of butterflies (fritillaries, monarchs, painted ladies and swallowtails) at its flowers and birds (American Goldfinch, Black-Capped Chickadee, Dark-Eyed Junco, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Cardinal, Pine Siskin) at its seedheads.

This is the time of year gardeners are starting to think about cutting back their dying perennials in an effort to have tidier gardens.  If you have Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) or one of the other species of Echinacea you know that they are no longer attracting the myriad butterflies that visit in the summer.  However, hold your clippers, for it’s highly likely that birds, especially American Goldfinches, will be feeding on your coneflower seeds in the near future. These seedheads are beneficial not only because they provide seeds, but because they reduce the birds’ reliance on feeders in the winter.  Finches are highly susceptible to Finch Eye Disease which spreads easily from infected birds to other finches when they all use the same feeder.

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Dark-eyed Junco Numbers Increasing

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Although Dark-eyed Juncos can be found year-round in New England, their numbers increase dramatically at this time of year, and they become much more noticeable. In addition to our year-round residents, many individuals that have bred further north migrate to the Northeast and even further south to overwinter. For this reason they are sometimes referred to as “Snowbirds.” From late September through October their numbers build and remain high until next May, when many return to their Canadian breeding grounds.

During the winter Dark-eyed Juncos can often be found in flocks, hopping and scratching on the ground as they forage for the seeds that make up 75 percent of their diet. Their two-toned white and gray plumage, and their white outer tail feathers are distinctive.

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Two Songbirds And A Mouse

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Two different kinds of signs — droppings and incisor marks – reveal the inhabitants of a woodshed during a very cold spell. The partially-eaten, shelled acorns have tiny grooves in them (difficult to see well in photo, my apologies), made by the incisors of a very small rodent, likely a White-footed Mouse or a Deer Mouse (the animals, much less their signs, are extremely difficult to tell apart, even if both species are sitting in front of you).

The two remaining signs are droppings from birds that sought shelter overnight inside the shed. Mourning Doves have very distinctive scat — individual round droppings, each about 1/4″ in diameter, consisting of coils of dark, solid waste which sometimes have a dollop of white uric acid on top.

The third and last sign is also bird droppings, but unlike the Mourning Dove’s, these are white and log-like. If you’ve been inundated with Dark-eyed Juncos this winter, you should be able to find these on the ground where they congregate.

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Birds Keeping Warm

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Birds utilize a number of behavioral adaptations that afford them some protection from frigid air such as we have been experiencing lately. They include sunning (turning their backs to the sun, exposing the largest surface of their bodies to the heat), shivering, tucking (placing one foot up inside feathers while standing on other leg, or squatting to cover both legs and feet with feathers; tucking their bill into their shoulder feathers and breathing air warmed by their body), roosting together in small groups (often in a small cavity, so as to conserve heat) and, most obvious of all, fluffing themselves up (creating air pockets that are warmed by body heat).

While feathers serve many purposes, from helping to attract a mate to providing camouflage, one of the most important jobs they have in winter is to keep a bird warm and dry. A bird’s body heat (the average bird’s body temperature is 105 degrees Fahrenheit), warms the air between its feathers. Birds fluff up in the cold to trap as much air in their feathers as possible, as the more trapped air, the warmer the bird. They can appear two or three times larger than they appear on a 32 degree day. This insulation is effective because it also is a barrier to water. The oil that birds apply to their feathers when they preen serves to waterproof the feathers. (Photo: Dark-eyed Junco)


Where Are All The Birds?

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Even though signs as well as sightings of active bears are plentiful, and black-oiled sunflower seeds are an open invitation for them to visit and potentially become “nuisance” bears, many devoted bird-lovers have already hung out feeders in hopes of luring feathered friends closer to their home. Throughout northern New England so few birds have been attracted to these feeders that they have remained full, some not having been refilled since September. Our usual fall and winter visitors appear to have all but vanished, and concern has been growing amongst those who feed birds.

Those familiar with bird feeding habits know that in the fall, when seeds are abundant, feeder visits by resident birds typically slow down. However, this year, at least anecdotally, appears to be extreme in this regard. Warm weather extending into November certainly has lessened birds’ food requirements. But having sunflower seeds sprout in your feeder before the need to replenish them arrives is unusual, if not alarming.

Dr. Pam Hunt, Senior Biologist in Avian Conservation at New Hampshire Audubon, recently shared some of her personal research with the birding world (UV- Birders). Hunt has conducted a weekly, 10 km-long, bird survey near Concord, NH for the past 13 years. In addressing the current concern over a lack of feeder birds, she extracted the data she had accumulated on 12 common birds (Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, White-throated Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Northern Cardinal, House Finch, American Goldfinch) over the last 13 falls, focusing on the period between Oct 1 and Nov 15. After extensive analysis, Hunt concluded that there has not been a dramatic decline in the number of birds this year, relative to the averages of the past 13 years. One cannot argue with scientific evidence (except for, perhaps, #45), but it does seem mighty quiet on the western (northeastern?) front this year.