Vol. 10 Issue 3, Fall 2005
By Ginger Walker
Loudoun County provides a unique wintering environment for migrating birds. While our area certainly isn’t a tropical haven, it doesn’t experience the harsh winter weather of New England or the Midwest, either. As a result, Loudoun residents can anticipate migrant visitors each winter as well as enjoy some “summer” birds year-round.
Northern states lose their bluebirds and robins in winter, while our populations of these birds can actually increase during the winter months. Catbirds will fly south, but mockingbirds will stay. Grackles will leave, but starlings will remain. House wrens will go, but Carolina wrens will stay and may even visit a birdfeeder if you offer peanuts or suet.
We can look forward to the arrival of wintering finch and sparrow species in October and early November. Pine siskins (plain, brown-streaked finches with bright gold wing bars) and purple finches (recognized by the male’s bright red-wine coloring and the female’s distinctive white eyebrow) may join your house finches and goldfinches at a thistle feeder.
Sparrow species prefer to eat millet seeds scattered on the ground. In this family you’re likely to see the white-crowned sparrow and the white-throated sparrow. However, the most populous migrating member of the sparrow family is the beloved “snowbird,” or dark-eyed junco, which returns to our area in October and typically remains until late March.
The species known as the dark-eyed junco is actually made up of five different sub-species: slate-colored, Oregon, pink-sided, dark-headed, and white-winged. In the past these five sub-species were considered separate until it was discovered that Oregon and slate-colored juncos were crossing the Rocky Mountains and interbreeding with each other. The juncos we’ll see in our area are the slate-colored sub-species.
At the feeder, these small birds in their dapper black ostensibly appear docile. However, wintering juncos have one of the strictest hierarchy structures among flock birds. Each flock has a dominant male. Fights break out between birds when the dominant male is challenged. The “zipping” sound and flashing white tail feathers are signs of alarm among juncos.
In the flock, the older males dominate younger birds as well as the females, which are easily identified by their rusty color. The farther north the flock, the higher the number of males as females and first-year birds are pushed south by aggressive males.
Simply tossing some millet or other small seeds on the ground in mid October will help attract juncos. These birds return to the same wintering area each year. If you feed juncos consistently every year, then you’re likely to have repeat visitors choose your yard as their winter home. Dense evergreens provide an ideal roosting habitat for juncos.
Feeding juncos year after year is a special delight precisely because they are only present during the winter months. These sparrow relatives are not as skittish as other feeder birds, allowing us the chance to closely observe how a community of birds interacts. While the autumn months can’t offer a birdwatcher the thrills of spring, the arrival of winter migrants brings quiet pleasures that are as unique to the season as the smell of the first frost and the sound of dry leaves rustling in the October wind.