Junco neighbors

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I’m not conducting junco-focused field work anymore, but that doesn’t mean I’ve lost my fondness for the little guys. I was delighted this spring to find a junco nest not five meters from my front door, well-hidden in the crotch of an ornamental tree.

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(Juncos usually nest on the ground, but they will occasionally nest higher.)

Since I was not studying these particular juncos For Science, I was free to interfere, so I began putting out some healthy snacks for the parents to feed their chicks. Neighbors share food, right?

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The female junco noticed my offerings within a day.

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She was a bit suspicious at first.

With few exceptions, baby birds eat bugs. Bugs are high in fat and protein and easier to digest than seeds. When the junco chicks grow up, they will live primarily on seeds, but as chicks they need bugs; so that is what I provided.

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You can buy live mealworms at most pet stores.

The female junco was happy to take them, and she had a system. First, she would grab them one-by-one and take them away from the source to inspect them. She would bite each one along its length, and keep doing this until it stopped moving. (Mealworms have substantial little jaws, so killing them before feeding them to your soft babies is a good idea.) Only then would she take all of them into her bill, look around to be sure no one was watching, and fly to the nest.

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Mealworm mustache

It took a few days for the male junco to notice the new food source, but when he finally showed up, it was impressive.

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What’s going on here?

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Is there food?

I have spent a lot of time watching juncos, and I’ve never seen another as consistently round as this daddy junco.

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He was happy to eat the insects himself, but as far as I could tell, he rarely fed the chicks. I got the impression that the female junco, whizzing back and forth with beakfuls of mealworms, did not appreciate this.

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Female hard at work; male, the round blob in the background, just hanging out.

Sometime she cheeped at him, which would make him come to her, but didn’t seem to result in his feeding the chicks.

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Come help me!

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What? My job is to keep a look-out for dangerous things.

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There might be dangerous things down here among the mealworms. I’d better check.

The junco chicks fledged. I was hoping to see them come get insects themselves, but being young, they hid in the vegetation—what little vegetation there is around my apartment complex—and waited for their parents to feed them.

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Around this time, we started feeding a new insect to the baby birds at the wildlife rehabilitation hospital where I volunteer. I decided to offer the juncos this new creature, waxworms, for variety along with the mealworms. Waxworms are soft, unlike mealworms, and fat; they look like a treat.

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The juncos liked them. A lot. They would take all the waxworms before they even looked at the mealworms.

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Still have to kill each one first.

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Then line them up so they can all fit in my bill.

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Mom I’m hungry!

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I’m coming!

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Not long after this, I had to go out of state for some field work, so the insect supplementation perforce ceased. By the time I got back, the baby juncos would have been big enough to disperse. I never saw them again.

I thought that would be the end of my knowledge of my junco neighbors. I didn’t find a second nest, although they often do have second broods; I didn’t spy the parents hopping around searching for food for new chicks.

Then, more than a month later, I heard cheeping.

Not junco cheeping. I’ve chased juncos for too many years not to recognize a junco voice, and this wasn’t it. But it was definitely a baby bird, and definitely loud.

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It was a brown-headed cowbird, the species that lays eggs in others’ nests and tricks those birds into raising cowbird babies. Juncos are a favorite target of cowbirds, and sure enough, here came my old friend the female junco.

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The male junco was hanging around too, although I never saw him feed the chick. I imagine he was proud of his big, noisy baby though.

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What a handsome baby I’ve raised.

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Almost as round as his poppa!

Apparently my junco neighbors had raised one brood of juncos, then a second brood of cowbird. It’s possible that there were junco chicks in that second brood, too, but I never saw one.

Cowbirds get a lot of heat for being “tricky” and “lazy,” but they’re fascinating birds with unique adaptations that allow them to pursue their odd child-rearing strategy (or lack thereof). The adults are extremely social, with complex hierarchies and courtship dances. The females are possibly the closest the bird world gets to an avian ornithologist: they have to keep track of all the nests near them and how far along their occupants are in their laying, so that the cowbird can add her own egg to the nest at exactly the right time. Essentially they are nest monitoring, just like I did, except their goal is offspring rather than a PhD.

And of course, baby cowbirds have no control over where they were laid. All they know is that they’re here now and hungry.DSC_9079junco

 

This particular cowbird was getting close to the age when his junco parents would stop feeding him and he would have to fend for himself. He made an effort, in between screaming for mom, to pick things up off the ground and see if they were edible.

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Can I eat that?

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How do I know?

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This doesn’t taste like food.

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Why is so much stuff not food?

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11 thoughts on “Junco neighbors

  1. Fascinating story. I love the idea that cowbirds are ornithologists. So the Poppa Junco is round because he thinks that looks cool? Or is he fluffed up because he’s cold (since he’s sitting around instead of flying and feeding the chicks)? Is he actually fatter than the Mom at this point? I wonder, too, how chick keeps from choking on all those worms.

    • The male junco isn’t actually fatter than the female, he’s just fluffed up. Normally I would think he was cold, as you suggest, but it was quite warm at the time and he was just *always* fluffed up. I don’t know why!

      The junco chick got them all down, eventually. Baby birds will spit out things that they don’t want, but this chick wanted all of them.

  2. So I guess the cowbird chick doesn’t learn its song from the junco parents. And later it somehow knows to hook up with another cowbird rather than a junco . . . .

    • Yes! Isn’t that a neat puzzle? How they do that is a subject of ongoing research. So far, we know that juveniles tend to instinctively congregate in open meadows at night, where presumably they encounter each other and learn what a cowbird is; and that cowbirds make a particular noise that, again instinctively, tells young cowbirds “This is your kind of bird, pay attention.”

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