Isherwood Column: The Junco
By Justin Isherwood
Junco is not a good name for a bird. No panache like cardinal or blue jay or flicker. Besides, who knows what a junco is?
It strikes me there is to this junco business a legal suit awaiting some aspiring lawyer to pursue in defense of ecology, on the grounds of a species being fairly named. To cite but a few: the hedgehog is neither a pig nor into finance. The booby doesn’t come close to looking like one, and for that matter neither does a titmouse. Wombat isn’t much better. An animal with a name like pieza isn’t like to survive, never mind it’s a mythicomyiid fly. There is on a Pacific island a snail called the Bah humbug; this has got to be ecologically liable. Wart hogs can easily sue for defamation. And that little matter of a small-statured donkey being called an ass by the Bible.
Junco is a depraved little name to give to one of the most cheerful and loyal winter residents of the bird feeder. This is not only the most cosmopolitan bird, it is entirely willing to share space with other residents at the feeder. To point out that blue jays won’t feed with mourning doves, cardinals prefer a similar exclusivity. It is my observation this racial discord among birds is the principle interruption of their winter feeding, to the end they are constantly jockeying for table space, incessantly going back and forth as if they never learned the lesson of the threshing crew. Where the washed and the unwashed commune in the universal splendor of chicken and biscuit, and wage the dinner-plate accordingly. An example of the most perfect heaven ever witnessed and cheap besides.
Why a junco is called a junco is a bit of a mystery. There is a shrub in Spain, a rush-type is called “junco”. The bird does not particularly frequent shrubs, if maybe some think that gray-to-black over-body and rather dull breast feathers is a shrubby appearance.
Juncos are called snow birds in some climes, not Wisconsin. Junco’s pattern of habitation is consistent with the coming of winter. As a resident of the boreal, the junco simply shifts territory a few degrees south, unlike the great migratory herd, all who have antebellum tendencies, Wisconsin juncos mostly stay put. If with winter they are more visible, like lumps of coal scattered from a naughty Santa’s sleigh.
Egalitarian is the junco, habituated to winter feeders, if a bird feeder might not gain its cardinals and jays, it will surely entertain juncos. This hired man species cannot be insulted by the wrong location or a short menu.
Juncos are clean-up birds, more often on the ground as perched on the feeder, they enjoy their own company. There is no such thing as one junco, if you have one you have the whole frat house of juncos. Not a Greek fraternity if more the science kind, for juncos are quiet, energetic, studious. And quite adequate weather forecasters, when the wind turns and the sky falls juncos take cover not to be seen in mob form until the blow is over. And then they descend out of the conifers as ready as rain, as if to signal it’s time to go shovel. Juncos are among the longer-lived birds, not uncommon to 11 years. They survive winter by adding 30% by weight of down feathers. The dark eyed junco has five major divisions; the gray headed, the Oregon, the pink-sided, the slate, the white winged. The Guadalupe junco of Mexico is severely endangered , only a hundred believed to be left.
With the spring the junco’s territorial song can provoke flashback in Vietnam veterans, their intense chipping at the same rate of fire as an AK-47. No. It won’t do to call the Junco the AK-47.