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When I came to the Placerita Canyon Nature Center on Jan. 17, I was one of the earliest visitors. Parking along the road approaching the Center was nearly empty. The ground where cars park seemed almost to be moving. Looking closely, I could see hundreds of small birds pecking at the ground.
Looking more closely, I saw that nearly all were Juncos. They were feeding on the acorns mashed by cars usually parking along the road.
If you visit Placerita Canyon Park anytime during the colder months, it’s nearly impossible to miss seeing Juncos on the ground feeding on bits and pieces of acorns and other seeds.
The Dark-eyed Junco – Junco hyemalis – is a flashy little sparrow that flits about forest floors of the western mountains and Canada, and then floods the rest of North America during cold weather. Most commonly at Placerita. we see the subspecies, Oregon Junco, but in the East it’s the Slate-Colored Junco. The Oregon Junco has a black head and black tail without white feathers, a white breast and a mostly brown body with dark wings. There are several other subspecies ranging over North America, including several in the West that we could see in Placerita.
I’m certain I’ve seen the Pink-Sided Junco at Placerita. Oregon Juncos are easy to recognize by their crisp (though extremely variable) markings and the bright-white outer tail feathers they flash in flight.
One of the most abundant forest birds of North America, you’ll see juncos on woodland walks as well as in flocks at your feeders or on the ground beneath them. This time of the year, I see Oregon Juncos frequently, often making their chip call on my morning walks in Friendly Valley.
Dark-eyed Juncos are primarily seed-eaters, with seeds of chickweed, buckwheat, lamb’s quarters, sorrel and the like, and as I mentioned, the mashed acorns under our oak trees. At feeders, they seem to prefer millet over sunflower seeds.
During the breeding season, Dark-eyed Juncos also eat insects including beetles, moths, butterflies, caterpillars, ants, wasps, and flies. When foraging, Dark-eyed Juncos typically hop, rather than walk, on the ground, pecking or scratching at the leaf litter or flit very low in underbrush gleaning food from twigs and leaves.
They sometimes fly up from the ground to catch insects from tree trunks. In flight, they flap continuously and pump their tails so the white outer tail feathers flash; flight is very agile as the bird maneuvers through its tangled environs.
Male juncos are very territorial in summer, chasing off intruders in rapid flights accompanied by excited call notes. When males court females, they fan or flick open their wings and tail, hop up and down, and pick up pieces of nest material or moss; females seem to prefer males that show more white in the tail.
During winter, Dark-eyed Juncos form fairly large flocks and where wintering ranges overlap you may find several subspecies in a single flock. Juncos also forage with other sparrows and bluebirds.
Females build the nests, using her beak to weave together materials and her body to give the nest its shape. Nests can be quite variable depending on where they are built. Sometimes ground nests get just a fine lining of grasses or pine needles. Other nests may be built on a foundation of twigs, leaves and moss, then lined with grasses, ferns, rootlets, hair and fine pieces of moss. The nests usually take three to seven days to build, and when finished, they are 3 to 5.5 inches across with an inner diameter of 2.4 to 2.8 inches and depth of 1.6 to 2.8 inches.
It’s rare for a junco to reuse a nest. The female chooses the nest site, typically in a depression or niche on sloping ground, rock face, or amid the tangled roots of an upturned tree. Around people, juncos may nest in or underneath buildings.
Normally two clutches of four eggs are laid during the breeding season. The slightly glossy eggs are grayish or pale bluish-white and heavily spotted (sometimes splotched) with various shades of brown, purple or gray. The spotting is concentrated at the large end of the egg. The eggs are incubated by the female for 12 to 13 days. Young leave nest between 11 and 14 days after hatching.
Come to Placerita during the colder months and look for these little black, brown and white birds, seen mostly on the ground under oak trees in the picnic area often in the company of Oak Titmice and White-crown Sparrows.
References for this article include the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, “Lives Of North American Birds” by Kenn Kaufman, The Cornell University Lab of Ornithology web page and several other pages on the internet under “Dark-eyed Junco.”
This article originally appeared in the March-April 2012 edition of The Rattler, the newsletter of the Placerita Canyon Nature Center Associates. The Nature Center is located at 19152 Placerita Canyon Rd, Newhall. For information or to volunteer, visit www.Placerita.org. Join the PCNCA Facebook group here: http://www.facebook.com/groups/pcnca.