Juncos underground

Juncos nest on the ground (usually; sometimes they will nest higher, even reusing old robins’ nests, but I’ve never seen this myself. It’s probably because I’m short). This makes their nests tricky to find, since in the first place, there is a lot of “the ground” to search, and in the second place, you have to be really careful where you step while you search.

They don’t just nest on the ground, though: they often hide their nests underneath things. Some of them are quite good at it.

YABI's nest. What do you mean, you can't see it - it's right there!

YABI’s nest. What do you mean, you can’t see it – it’s right there!

See, there it is!

See, there it is!

Some of them… aren’t so good at it.

R-BA's nest: technically under something, but not very hidden.

R-BA’s nest: technically under something, but not very hidden.

This unpredictability—will the nest be hidden? Will it be out in the open waiting to be stepped on?—makes nest searching difficult, but exciting.

When we can, we like to cut down on our work by letting the juncos show us where the nest is. We back away from the general area and hide, and if we’re lucky, the junco parents go down to the nest to feed their chicks and/or make sure the scary humans didn’t eat everyone. Then we look for the nest in the spot where the parents went. Usually this works well.

This nest would be quite hard to find if the parents didn't show you that it was between two rocks.

This nest would be quite hard to find if the parents didn’t show you that it was hidden between two rocks.

Recently we employed this trick while trying to locate BALI’s nest.

BALI, when we banded him back in 2013.

BALI, when we banded him back in 2013.

Two of us, from two different directions, saw him go down to the nest. With our two perspectives combined, we should have had no problem finding the nest: the intersection of two lines is a point; plus, I now have three years’ experience doing this!

We could not find the nest. It was not a large area; it was not complex habitat. It was the ground, with some grass. There was nowhere to hide, and yet… nothing.

Where is it?

Where is it?

Finally, by pure luck, I knelt down in the right spot and saw it: hidden in a tunnel, the opening of which was only visible from a very specific angle. If you weren’t kneeling right where I happened to be, all you saw was bare ground. It was brilliant.

BALI's nest.

BALI’s nest.

When we returned later to band the chicks, they were clearly getting ready to leave their tunnel.





When we’re banding chicks, we keep the ones we aren’t actively working with in a cloth bag (or, sometimes, my hat). In theory this keeps them calm, shielded from the scary sight of us. In practice, well, that cloth bag does a lot of rustling and cheeping.


They are good at climbing up the inside of the bag.

They are good at climbing up the inside of the bag.

Two flying, one begging: total chaos.

Two flying, one begging: total chaos.

Kudos to BALI for raising some very energetic chicks in his secret tunnel nest.

Tunnels aren’t always a great idea, though. We also recently found this nest, belonging to ROSA:

ROSA's nest

ROSA’s nest

In a tunnel! What could be wrong with that? Well… it’s not actually a tunnel, it’s the hoofprint left by a cow walking through mud. In fact it’s smack in the middle of what is basically a cow highway.

All the holes are cow hoofprints.

All the holes are cow hoofprints.

Now, the juncos are always surprising me and I don’t like to pretend that I know more than they do about how to be a junco, because I don’t, but: ROSA, this seems like a poor choice.

8 thoughts on “Juncos underground

    • The cows haven’t come back – but heavy rains made the ground around the nest partially collapse, and ROSA appears to have abandoned the eggs. If it isn’t one thing, it’s another.

      • This is the way of our current world, unfortunately. Even with AD BLOCKER these annoyances still pop-up. I know it must be frustrating for you as well.

  1. Just curious: are you aware there’s a YOUTUBE ad on your site? I was taken by surprise. I love your site but (assuming you do know and have accepted ads) am a tad dismayed. Hope it won’t become too cluttered.

    • Dolores, yes, I know there are ads. I don’t choose them and I don’t get any money from them. Unfortunately, I’d have to pay to make them go away – and as a grad student I’d rather spend my limited funds on research. I do wish they weren’t there, though! I don’t endorse them in any way.

  2. Pingback: Ramona McKean - Goodbye, Little Birds

  3. Pingback: What can we learn from 1500 junco bills? | Tough Little Birds

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