As I peer out into my backyard contemplating what will be the animal of the month for December 2012, to my delight I see that the Dark-Eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) have returned.
These small 5 to 7-inch long birds have the shape of a House Sparrow, yet are so different in appearance and behavior. The head, back, and chest are such a dark grey they appear to be almost black. This striking dorsal coloration is contrasted by a pure white underside and light yellow beak.
The Dark-eyed Junco is occasionally referred to as a "snowbird" because they appear in Nebraska close to the onset of winter and migrate to cooler climates in the spring. They are usually seen on acreages and in suburb yards hopping on ground close to shrubs or conifer trees looking for small seeds and grains. Thickets and windbreaks seem to be their common roost. They will also favor locations under bird feeders as fallen seed is an easy and frequent food source. Juncos forage on the ground in small groups of 10 tp 20, scratching with their feet to find food.
These are flocking birds with a distinct hierarchy. They seem to avoid groups of sparrow, however, I have noticed them intermingling with solitary sparrows while foraging. Juncos are quick to take flight and find cover within conifer trees if any larger animal appears. A sudden flash of under and outer bright white tail feathers is an alarm signal to all fellow flock members to take flight. Their flights are quick sprints to inner locations of understory trees and shrubs.
In addition to seeds, favorite foods for the Dark-Eyed Junco include dried berries and grapes barely hanging on a vine or that have fallen to the ground. Therefore, whenever I have leftover dried fruits or someone gives me a fruitcake, I spread them on the ground under an evergreen or shrub for little Dark-Eyed Juncos.
For a winter project, try to develop your skills at photographing birds or othr animals at feeders. It's not easy, but a good photograph is a treasure.