Brooklyn Bird Watch: Dark-Eyed Junco

When I saw this Heather Wolf photo taken in Brooklyn Bridge Park of a “Dark-Eyed Junco”, I was perhaps like a lot of amateur bird people: struck by the name of this species of sparrow, the Dark-Eyed Junco. I can see the dark eyes. But what is a “junco”?

According to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Carl Linnaeus — the renowned Swedish botanist who formalized binomial nomenclature (the modern system of naming organisms) — called this bird a “black finch with a white belly.” Linnaeus was referring to an early description of the bird that came from Mark Catesby even before binomial nomenclature had been established. Catesby called it his “snowbird” or “snow sparrow.” In his observations from Virginia and North Carolina, Catesby noted that he only saw the bird in winter, and more often in landscapes covered with snow.

The modern scientific name, Junco hyemalis, means “winter junco” which comes from a Latin word (hymalis) meaning “of the winter”. The word “junco” remained the issue. That word is Spanish for “rushes,” in turn from the Latin “juncus.” So it’s not clear how the naming happened since the Dark-Eyed Junco is very rarely found among rushes. They normally appear at the beginning of winter and then retreat northward each spring. (In case no one knew, in Florida people who do that are also called “snowbirds.”)

The Dark-Eyed Juncos can be found in any wooded habitat in the winter and even in suburban areas. It’s a large family of birds with 15 sub-species.

One could say: Birders stay alert. You never know when you might see something and make history. For example, as featured in The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “NestWatch,” a lady in Washington State wrote to Cornell asking if the Dark-Eyed Junco ever nested in birdhouses. NestWatch wrote her back and said she must be experiencing a case of mistaken identity because Juncos don’t nest in cavities. But when the woman sent a photograph her claim was validated, and Cornell said: “We couldn’t believe our eyes.”

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NestWatch searched its database to see if there were any other such reports and the only thing they found was a record of a Junco nesting in an open-fronted nest. NestWatch could find no other instance, so concluding that this must be the first instance of Dark-eyed Juncos nesting in an enclosed birdhouse. Eventually Cornell’s search through the scientific literature did locate two mentions of the Dark-eyed Junco nesting in old woodpecker holes, but both sources were more than 100 years old, so according to Cornell, that makes the woman (Melissa Sherwood) the first person in over a century to witness it.

I hope Brooklynites who spot the Dark-Eyed Junco in Brooklyn Bridge Park will remember my rambling history lesson.


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