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  • J. Darris Mitchell

Dark Eyed Junco

Bird of the Week

December 31st, 2022 The Dark Eyed Junco

The Dark Eyed Junco is a type of sparrow that isn’t too concerned with camouflage. While most sparrows come in subtly patterned shades of brown and grey, the junco defies its Passerelidae family with broad patches of color. The one we have most often in central Texas is slate gray on top, with a bright white belly and a pink bill. For a sparrow, it’s practically neon.

I don’t know much about juncos. I do not see them consistently, so I haven’t figured out their preferred habitat. I see them on the ground as much as I see them in shrubs or branches, or even treetops. They’re also pretty easy to identify—they’re the only sparrow that looks like that—so I haven’t’ spent much time pouring over field guides to try and truly understand this species. Instead, their appearance is almost always a surprise for me. Even in 2022, when I spent the entire month of December trying to track one down, I did not see one until I gave up on trying to find one. Only then did it appear, the unexpected king-sized candy bar in the Halloween bag. The mistakenly poured beer that the bartender would rather give away instead of pour out.

I did not find until after I reached my goal of seeing 300 birds in Texas for a calendar year. It was bird #303, and no longer hiding from me, it appeared in the middle of a path at McKinney Falls. I gasped, able to recognize its smooth featured face and pink bill even without my binoculars. My junco had finally appeared! I raised my binoculars and watched it scratch around in the dirt before it flitted onto a nearby live oak and started working its way up the crooked trunk. I called quietly for the other people doing the Christmas Bird Count with me and we all got glass on it, enjoying the unhurried movements of this poorly camouflaged sparrow.

Juncos are easily recognizable from a distance, and not particularly secretive, especially for a sparrow. Whenever I see them, they seem unconcerned as they go about their business before vanishing from sight once more. A bonus game bird. A prize that cannot be sought, only found.

I saw a flock of them on the 2nd day of 2023, in a neighbor’s hedge, and then in the branches of their live oak, and finally in the sky as they fled overhead, back into the greenbelt that runs behind all of our houses. I have no explanation for the presence, no deeper understanding. I take their presence as a sign, a challenge to dig deeper into my new neighborhood and the system of flood-proofing greenbelts that runs through it.

The Dark Eyed Junco is the bird of the last week of 2022 and the first week of 2023.

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