Looking out for the snowbird

The first troupe arrived the day before Halloween.

I never expect them any more than I “expect” how quickly I continue to flip the pages on my calendar. But, if I can’t keep up with the calendar (and I’m talking monthly pages here; the day-by-day lead to pure madness), the junco remains . . . what? Shall I say perhaps better organized?

Twice I have recorded their first sighting on the second of October. Usually they arrive by mid-month and there is not a year since my records began in 1997 when they haven’t been here before month’s end.

Sometimes they hang around into May though that is unexpected because, while they are known as the snowbird, I know most of that white stuff will be gone usually by our fifth month.

It is difficult for me to imagine any bird (or any anything) migrating south to come here for the winter but that’s exactly what these little guys do. They breed in the frozen tundra (I wouldn’t) and then scoot down here for their vacation.

Probably the easiest bird to recognize (certainly among all the black and white visitors), the Dark-Eyed Junco (to be perfectly correct) is solid gray on the top with a white chest, pink bill and no other markings. The female may appear a little more brownish gray. They love our feeders and come easily in groups. They all eat weeds and grass seeds but prefer dining on the millet, sunflower seeds or cracked corn they expect you to provide. Hmm. I’d put the latter away until gosling time. Maybe I’ll experiment.

There are, I read, also an “Oregon-race,” a “gray-headed race” and a “pink-sided” race. None except one totally bewildered will show up here. I wouldn’t worry about it unless you’re checking a life list. There’s enough enjoyment for us amateurs just watching our everyday junco.

You might like to know “troupe” is pretty close to a perfect word for a flock will return to the same place each winter with a very fixed membership. Whew! I tend to avoid those organizations but it obviously works well for this little bird.

Although they all look pretty much alike, you’ll easily be able to distinguish by their rough-and-tumble behavior at the feeder. There is a strict hierarchy. Super birds take their food first and, when feeding is most intense early and late in the day, you may observe this definite pecking order.

Males come first. The old and the strong and then the youngsters. They’re followed by adult females and then those girls. I read that dominance may also be based on experience though I’d guess that’s how the older ones survived to be yes, the older ones.

I don’t think there’s any reason to get into the nesting and breeding behaviors. If you’re planning to be in the tundra, check it out then. Only thing worth noting is that the longer days up north trigger their hormones and the males start singing and the females, forgetting all that wintry exclusionary behavior, start thinking of building a nest (which they do alone).

When they do head south (and they do) they may travel all the way to Georgia. Some even go on to Mexico. Why so many prefer to stop in our neighborhood might be a mystery.

I only know I’m happy to welcome them back even if it does mean snow.

Susan Crossett is a Cassadaga resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com