Feathered Friends: ‘Feathered Friends’ celebrates 17th anniversary this week

9:56 am | November 5, 2012

I wrote my first “Feathered Friends” column on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1995, for the Elizabethton STAR newspaper.

Photo by Ken Thomas
This year’s Dark-eyed Juncos, like the one pictured above, returned Oct. 30 to Simerly Creek Road in Hampton. Their arrival coincided with this season’s first blast of wintry weather.

Sometimes, I wonder where the time has gone as I reflect on the fact that I have now observed the 17th anniversary of my writing this weekly column, which has appeared in three different newspapers.

The column has also been a great means of getting to know other people interested in our “feathered friends.” I always enjoy hearing from readers, and I hope to continue to do so in the coming years as well.

That first column I wrote back in 1995 focused on one of the region’s most prevalent winter residents — the Dark-eyed Junco. I haven’t yet seen my first Dark-eyed Juncos at home this fall, but the first White-throated Sparrows of the season showed up on Halloween, Oct. 31. These two birds are usually present in healthy numbers throughout the winter. Here, with some revisions I have made through the years, is the very first “Feathered Friends” column.

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Of all the birds associated with winter weather, few are as symbolic as the Dark-eyed Junco, or “snow bird.” The junco occurs in several geographic variations.

John V. Dennis, author of “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding,” captures the essence of the junco in the following description: “Driving winds and swirling snow do not daunt this plucky bird. The coldest winter days see the junco as lively as ever and with a joie de vivre that bolsters our sagging spirits.” The Dark-eyed Junco’s scientific name, hyemalis, is New Latin for “wintry,” an apt description of this bird.

Most people look forward to the spring return of some of our brilliant birds — warblers, tanagers and orioles — and I must admit that I also enjoy the arrival of these birds. The junco, in comparison to some of these species, is not in the same league. Nevertheless, the junco is handsome in its slate gray and white plumage, giving rise to the old saying “dark skies above, snow below.”

Just as neotropical migrants make long distance journeys twice a year, the junco is also a migrating species. But in Appalachia, the junco is a special type of migrant. Most people think of birds as “going south for the winter.” In a basic sense this is true. But some juncos do not undertake a long horizontal (the scientific term) migration from north to south. Instead, these birds merely move from high elevations, such as the spruce fir peaks, to the lower elevations. This type of migration is known as vertical migration. Other juncos, such as those that spend their breeding season in northern locales, do make a southern migration and, at times, even mix with the vertical migrants.

Juncos are usually in residence around my home by early November. Once they make themselves at home I can expect to play host to them until at least late April or early May of the following year. So, for at least six months, the snow bird is one of the most common and delightful feeder visitors a bird enthusiast could want.

Juncos flock to feeders where they are rather mild-mannered — except among themselves. There are definite pecking orders in a junco flock, and females are usually on the lower tiers of the hierarchy. Females can sometimes be distinguished from males because of their paler gray or even brown upper plumage.

Since juncos are primarily ground feeders they tend to shun hanging feeders. But one winter I observed a junco that had mastered perching on a hanging “pine cone” feeder to enjoy a suet and peanut butter mixture.

Dark-eyed Juncos often are content to glean the scraps other birds knock to the ground. Juncos are widespread. They visit feeders across North America. The junco is the most common species of bird to visit feeding stations. They will sample a variety of fare, but prefer such seeds as millet, cracked corn or black oil sunflower.

There’s something about winter that makes a junco’s dark and light garb an appropriate and even striking choice, particularly against a backdrop of newly fallen snow.

Of course, the real entertainment from juncos come from their frequent visits to our backyard feeders. When these birds flock to a feeder and begin a furious period of eating, I don’t even have to glance skyward or tune in the television weather forecast. I know what they know. Bad weather is on the way!

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This year’s Dark-eyed Juncos arrived Tuesday, Oct. 30, at my home on Simerly Creek Road in Hampton. The early winter storm that brought some snow to the region probably provided the juncos and other birds to seek out my feeders.

In addition, the Buffleheads are back at Wilbur Lake near Elizabethton. Brookie and Jean Potter reported eight Buffleheads on Sunday, Oct. 28. These little diving ducks spend the winter on Wilbur Lake, usually arriving in the final days of October.

Wilbur Lake also received a visit by a Great Egret Monday, Oct. 29. The egret was reported by Glen Eller. The next day, the same bird was seen by Tom McNeil. However, on the way to Wilbur Lake, Tom also found a second Great Egret on the Watauga River near the Misty Waters market.

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If you have a comment or question, give me a call at 542-4151 or send an email to bstevens@starhq.com or ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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