Oregon Junco on picnic table
Birds: Oregon Junco
Hello, dark eyes. You look mysterious today!
The daily parade of backyard birds includes some colorful and evocative names: Rufus-Sided Towhee, White-Crowned Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Black-Capped Chickadee, Scrub Jay, Robin, Anna’s Hummingbird, and the “Oregon Junco.” The Junco is our most common visitor to the birdbath and most recognizable forager in the garden dirt. If the Junco’s coloring and eyes are not alluring enough, there are always the tail feathers, which flash white, then dark, as it speeds for cover in the underbrush.
According to Stewart Janes, a longtime bird enthusiast from the Pacific Northwest, the Oregon Junco is the last remaining bird species that bares the state in its name. Apparently, we used to add the word ‘Oregon’ to distinctive species of Jay, Chickadee, Titmice, and Towhee, but the ‘Oregon’ flavors of these birds are not so familiar to us Easterners. The regional names seem to have fallen out of use and been discarded for one reason or another. The Bullock Oriole is having a similar effect on a Maryland favorite, the Baltimore Oriole. The name pressure still seems to exist for the Oregon Junco, as many bird books have replaced ‘Oregon’ in favor of other names, such as ‘Dark-eyed Junco’ (Junco hyemalis) with accompanying pictures that show the regional variations to the dominant race. So it goes.
One reason for the name changes come from the vast variety of coloring and geographic diversity that seems to exist. Many of the Juncos have overlapping territories and the recent generations seem to be interbreeding. For taxonomy reasons, which are over my pay grade, ornithologists feel it is better to rename birds by the dominant species, rather than proliferating the regional or local varieties. The Junco, for example, has the ‘Slate-colored’ in the East, the ‘Gray-headed’ in the Southwest, the ‘White-winged’ in the upper Midwest, and the ‘Oregon’ in the Northwest. We’ll have to see what variations show up n the future to determine if the name ‘Oregon Junco’ sticks around for generations to come.
It is interesting to note that there are some important maturation changes to the Junco coloration that seem to impact their mating habits and protective camouflage. In the first few months after the young Juncos have fledged, they are brown and striped. By their first fall, the Oregon Juncos change color to the distinguished darker hood, which they keep for the rest of their short lives. The female’s head is gray and the male’s head is black. The male also has pinkish-brown sides, which adds to the sexual variation and identification. Both sexes have pink bills and white outer tail feathers.
During breeding season they are found in the bushes around our Douglas fir and other conifers. They search for food quietly on the ground, flashing their tail feathers like a perspiring Japanese maiden rapidly opening and closing her fan. Again, according to Janes, with each hop the white tail-flash is a way to communicate its location and proximity to the other birds in the flock.
Recently a Golden Retriever was sniffing around an Oregon Junco’s nest and the incubating bird was wildly flashing its wings and chipping loudly at the dog. Like a Killdeer feigning a broken wing, the Junco was trying to distract the dog from her chicks and sure death. She dove at the dog, pecked at its ears desperately. Not sure if the ruse worked, but the Junco gave the Retriever a curious workout.
When not trying to protect its nest, the Junco’s call is most audible when it is flushed. The male and female give a hard, distinctive, shrill note. When they want to be more melodious, they add a sort of trill at the end of the call, that seems sweet and soft. The speed and frequency of the call must send the heart of the potential mate all a flutter. Good for Valentine’s day!