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?

19 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.”

  3. You are so funny!!!!! And a wonderful writer… I really hope you put all of these gems into a book.

    Question for you – Why don’t birds get sap on their feet?

    Especially pines; some doves nested across my 3rd story balcony in a pine and babies/parents grew and flew away, sapless.

    Appreciate your insights, great studies, and wonderful stories of with humanity and heart – and beautiful pictures.

  4. Thanks, I really enjoyed your post. After reading this, I came to know the name of a bird which attacked my dearest balcony-mates this morning. I live in California and my balcony-mates are Dark-eyed Junco family with 5 days old nestlings.

    It was so brutal for me to watch the whole 3 minute length video of 5 nestlings attacked by a ruthless cowbird via recorded Google Nest camera. After the cowbird left (I don’t know if it is a coincidence of papa junco coming in 10 seconds), three nestlings bleeding and upside down were still in the nest and three were fallen from the pot which the nest was located in.

    It was also heartbreaking to watch both parents’ reaction to what just happened in the nest. Even though I put back two fallen chicks to the nest when the parents are away, I thought all of them would die soon or only few of them will make it.

    But guess what? Parents devoted themselves to take care of their injured nestlings and thankfully, four out of five nestlings survived now with vigorous feeding reactions. I am still surprised, because two of them have a pretty big wound on its face and the top of its head, respectively. Birds may be tougher than I thought (like you said in this website)! I wish all of them can survive this night too and become healthy adult juncos in few weeks.

    I am not sure if you will see this reply, but I just want to say thank you for this wonderful website.

    • Oof, that’s rough! I hope someday to stop moving around long enough to set up nestcams, but scenes like that are definitely a downside (although interesting from a purely scientific perspective).

      Cowbirds are known to attack nestlings; we think the goal is to get the parents to renest, so that cowbird can slip its egg into that new nest, but we don’t know for sure. (Cowbirds also will destroy nests if the parents kick out a cowbird egg, a sort of “retaliation” that encourages hosts to accept cowbird eggs! I have a lot of fondness for the weirdness of cowbirds, but they certainly do have a dark side.)

      I hope your juncos are still okay. I would be worried that the cowbird would attack again, since he knows where the nest is. If you get a chance to update me on them, I’d be interested to know how they’re doing.

      Thanks so much for the nice words about the blog!

  5. You’re still around! You haven’t posted about Juncos in a while. How is field work in this time of sheltering-in-place? I’ve learned so much just going through your posts. Haven’t read all of them yet but I feel like I know so much about Juncos now.

    I’ve got my second Junco family due in a few days now. Five eggs in a nest built just below my home office window. We had a family last year outside the kitchen window in the groundcover.

    I’ve been setting out a tray of birdseed since I saw the first nest, mostly millet. I’ve supplemented this with rehydrated mealworms when the young ‘uns were around. So cute when the parents brought their fledglings by to feed at the food trays. The fledglings would plop on the ground a few inches away from the tray and mommy Junco would have to pick up each seed or worm and carry it the few inches to the fledglings with their gaping mouths. What lazy kids!

    Thanks for getting me started on this. It’s really nice to have something to keep entertained with while sheltering-in-place.

    • *sniff*. My Junco neighbors didn’t make it. I’m still a little shocked. The parents were acting weird this afternoon. Instead of shuttling bugs to their five new chicks as they had done most of the morning, they were sitting on the fence, chipping a bit more than usual, but just moving on the fence, not going down to the nest at all. I decided to take peek at the nest. To my horror, the nest was empty except for one dead chick. Wha? Katie has written on nest predation on this blog and JH shared experiences with a cowbird. But I was hoping nothing would happen to the Junco nest just under my window.

      I saved the nestlings from a rat yesterday. I heard mommy and daddy Junco making a lot of noise outside my window. A look and I could see mommy doing the broken wing trick. I immediately knew it was a predator and ran outside. The nest looked intact and the chicks were all there, but then some beady eyes caught my attention. A rat was under the bushes only a foot away from the nest! I grabbed some gloves, caught him by the tail, and it was into the garbage can. Couldn’t let him go because he knew where the nest was and he wasn’t getting a second chance.

      But I had a three hour Zoom conference this morning so my window was closed. Mommy and daddy Junco were on their own. I don’t know what attacked the nest. There were no signs of bird parts around and no blood in the nest. Was it another rat? I saw a crow walking on the fence near the nest before the eggs hatched. Could it have eaten the chicks? I’m guessing a crow would have swallowed them whole which would explain why the nest looked relatively clean. Whatever took the chicks came back for the last dead one. The nest was empty this evening.

      Mommy and daddy Junco were still hanging around this evening. Mostly on the fence but I saw daddy going down to the nest, maybe to wonder what could have been.

      • Oh no! This is pretty common – probably about 1/3 – 2/3 of junco nests get depredated – but that doesn’t make it easy. I got upset whenever one of the nests I was monitoring for field work failed. I too would see the parents checking the nest for a day or two after it failed; I do think it takes them a bit to absorb what happened. (I can’t as a scientist say they’re experiencing loss/grief, but I also can’t say they aren’t.)

        It could have been another rat, or a snake, or the crow. This time of year, everyone is reproducing and trying to feed their babies – there’s a good chance that the junco chicks went to feed crow chicks.

        Juncos usually renest not too far from where the original nest was, so keep an eye out and you may find the second brood. They renest pretty quickly – just a few days to build a new nest, then 1 day/egg for 3-5 eggs, then ~12 days incubation. Even if you don’t find the nest, the parents would definitely appreciate some more mealworms starting in about 3 weeks!

        I hope you have better junco luck in the future.

  6. What a great account of these lovely birds. You should turn this into a book. Kids would find this fascinating and the more educated about nature the more they appreciate it. Wonderful pictures and a sweet and informative site. I love birds and obviously you do too. I often save little birds and take them to our rescue centre. So many people say, “Oh, just leave them alone and let nature take its course.” I believe cats and other things, like cars, are not really part of nature as they would not be domesticated and in our yards if we were not here. We have upset the balance and I believe all wildlife needs our help. Cars are definitely not part of nature nor are window panes. Anyway, thank you for what you do. All education helps.

    • Trish, thank you so much for looking out for your local wildlife! I completely agree that “let nature take its course” doesn’t apply to cats, dogs, cars, roads, windows, etc. Certainly it’s a natural inclination for cats to hunt, but it isn’t at all natural for them to be here – we brought them here, and now we feed them and vaccinate them so that they have lots and lots of kittens: hardly “natural.” (I love cats, and have two very pampered ones, but I keep them indoors and don’t consider them any more natural than a potato chip.) Keep up the good deeds!

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