Juncos: Just another winter bird?

By Rebecah Troutman, HF&G Natural Areas Biologist

Our team handles the birds we study with the utmost care. Here’s a little more about how we net and handle the juncos:

  • Birds are captured in mist nets (very fine-strand nets that are nearly invisible).
  • We use a decoy and recordings of their songs to attract territorial males to the net.
  • Females and young birds generally don’t respond strongly to recordings so we rely on careful net placement and patience.
  • Once a bird is in the net, I carefully remove it from the net and put band(s) on one or both legs and take measurements and photos of the bird.
  • Birds are generally released within 5-10 minutes of capture and we make note of behavior – generally they fly to a nearby tree, briefly inspect the new bands and then fly away!

For many backyard bird observers, Dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) are a favorite character to watch in the winter at their feeders and local green spaces. However, they are not found in most parts of Ohio during the summer; they come here for winter and go North for their breeding season in the Spring. Reports going as far back as 1882 show that this “winter bird” does in fact breed in part of Northeast Ohio and may even be a permanent resident.

To better understand this species, Holden Forests & Gardens’ Conservation Biologist, Mike Watson and volunteer Haans Petruschke have been banding, recording, and tracking juncos seen in Holden Arboretum’s natural areas. Decades of annual breeding bird surveys at Holden shows that the property supports a healthy and growing breeding population.

By banding the juncos captured during the summer and then searching for them during the winter, Mike and Haans can figure out if they are permanent residents, rather than migrating birds. So far,  the banding observations have shown that just over 40% of summer-banded birds are found during one or more subsequent winter.  This demonstrates that at least a portion (and likely all) of the breeding population of juncos are year-round residents. What does this mean for the conservation of juncos? If our breeding juncos are discrete from the broader junco population (as is the case for other non-migratory junco populations) they may have unique genetic, morphological or behavioral characteristics. As Holden already does in our natural areas, we need to ensure that critical bird habitats are preserved and protected and encourage others to do the same.