These are dependable winter birds. They come to us every winter unlike those sporadic unpredictable winter visitors pine siskins and red and white-winged crossbills, snow buntings, rough-legged hawks and snowy owls. They’re common winter birds to us. The tree sparrows join the chickadees and nuthatches, blue jays, house sparrows and house finches coming to our feeders while the juncos feed more often on the ground below. Both will be with us until late February or March.
The dark-eyed junco was once named slate-colored junco. It is frequently called snow bird. I’ve seen it first some years at the time of the first snow and is with us whenever we have snow. It has the colors of a cloudy winter day. Arthur Cleveland Bent, “In Life Histories of American Birds,” expressed it well writing, “With its uniform pale gray upperparts sharply defined against its white belly, (it’s) aptly described as leaden skies above, snow below.”
The tree sparrow is officially the American tree sparrow because there is also a Eurasian tree sparrow. That bird is not really a sparrow but, like the house sparrow, is a weaver finch. The Eurasian tree sparrow has been introduced in North America but died out except in a small area around St. Louis, Missouri.
The Eurasian tree sparrow is misnamed sparrow and the American tree sparrow is also improperly named. Its nesting range is not just the north but the far north, where the trees are stunted and small or where there are not trees at all.
Junco is also incorrect for it’s derived from Latin and means rush, the kind of rush that grows in the shallow water of a marsh. But juncos aren’t birds either of marshes or rushes. Their nesting range is Canada and the northernmost U.S. states, farther south in the Appalachian Mountains, and they nest on the ground beneath coniferous trees in forests.
These are not just winter feeder birds. Tree sparrows are often seen in small flocks along country roads, flying, landing and clinging to weed stems and on the ground along the sides of the roads. The birds on the weeds will be feeding on the seeds in the weed heads and at the same time they’ll be shaking seeds free, scattering them on the ground below where other, less vigorous flock mates will pick them up.
Walk through a field of weeds and grass and you may find a flock of tree sparrows. Walk along a fence that has trees and brush and weeds and you may find tree sparrows and juncos. Take a path through a woods and you may find a flock of juncos.
Tree sparrows and juncos are hardy little birds, like the chickadees and nuthatches and other birds that stay with us through the winter. Though the temperature drops below zero they’re still active throughout the day. They appear perky, as cheery as ever even on the coldest winter days. Only on days of freezing rain or heavily falling snow or strong wind do they fail to come to our feeders and I know they’re hiding in the sheltering branches of a pine or spruce tree or in thick brush. But they’ll be out again as soon as the rain or snow stop and the wind subsides, seemingly heedless of the cold.