Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Snowy Snowbird...

A female Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) lives up to her nickname of snowbird...

A beautiful female Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) sits on a branch in the snow. He light grey and brown feathers contrast nicely with the white of the snow.
A female Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) in the snow.
With rosy-pink bills, gray cloaks, and bright white feathers on their bellies, Dark-eyed Juncos are distinctive and pretty birds. They have sweet-sounding calls too. When a small flock surrounds you in the snow, their high-pitched tinkling sounds carry well through the whiteness...and if you're fanciful, might make you think of snow fairies ringing out tiny bells...really!

A dark-eyed junco sits on a branch with snow accumulating. The bird is head on, looking straight into the camera.
Our little snowbird gives me the once over as she listens to the camera shutter click. 
Birds are so aware of everything going on around them that it's almost impossible to escape detection.  

When I was photographing this Dark-eyed Junco, "you're a snowy little snowbird" went through my mind, and I wondered where the nickname snowbird came from. It's easy enough to figure out why the nickname arose...the birds arrive in our area when snow starts to fly, so snowbird fits, but I was interested in when the name came about. That evening, I accessed the online version of Birds of America by John James Audubon (click here for the book). I wondered if Audubon had an entry for Dark-eyed Juncos, and found one, but he didn't call them juncos, he referred to them as "Common Snow-birds!" I always assumed snowbird was a modern moniker, so it was fun to learn the name was old, and it was the name Audubon used to describe juncos:
"Although the Snow-Birds live in little families, consisting of twenty, thirty, or more individuals, they seem always inclined to keep up a certain degree of etiquette among themselves, and will not suffer one of their kind, or indeed any other bird, to come into immediate contact with them. To prevent intrusions of this kind, when a stranger comes too near, their little bills are instantly opened, their wings are extended, their eyes are seen to sparkle, and they emit a repelling sound peculiar to themselves on such occasions." (click here for the text)
I wondered how much earlier the name snowbird had been used and found a quick answer in Wikipedia. No surprise, Linnaeus described the bird in his 1758 Systema naturae as Fringilla hyemalis. What interested me, however, was his source had been Mark Catesby, whom I knew was a natural historian and bird artist from colonial American times. My knowledge of Catesby related only to several of his beautiful bird paintings, so I bought a few books on him to learn more (I learned a lot, but all of that will have to wait for another post). Catesby's "Snow Bird" appears in volume one of his book The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (v1 first published in 1732, but this scan is from the 1771 edition):

A scan of Catesby's original text. I love seeing and reading the old font.
Catesby's description of the snowbird is in volume one of "The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands." 
I love seeing the old text. The version of the book I bought is a simple copy of the original, and the quality isn't perfect, but it's fun reading his original words in the archaic font.

From Catesby's biographies, I learned John Lawson preceded him, and Catesby valued his work, so I wondered if Lawson mentioned the bird in his writings. In Lawson's book published in 1709, A New Voyage to Carolina; Containing the Exact Description and Natural History of That Country (click here for an online version), he called Dark-eyed Juncos "Snow-Birds" too:
The Snow-Birds are most numerous in the North Parts of America, where there are great Snows. They visit us sometimes in Carolina, when the Weather is harder than ordinary. (Click here for online text, page 146.) the name is old. Where did Lawson hear the name? Did he coin it or had earlier settlers used it? Did the Native Americans refer to the bird as snowbird in their tongue? I don't know. When all is said and done, it's an old name (as are most of the bird names), and I imagine those of us who only see juncos in the winter will continue to call them snowbirds for a long time!

A Dark-eyed Junco sits on a branch in a tree as snow falls all around.
You can see a bit of the white on the tail feathers (retrices) that flash white when a junco flies up from the ground. This flash of white on the tail is an easy way to identify these birds from a distance. It's what I always watch for in the autumn when I'm waiting for these birds to return to our yard from their summer breeding grounds up north. The white flash gives them away every time! 

Snow fairies ringing out tiny bells...
As for my description of a junco's call likened to snow fairies with bells...I learned it's not original. Thoreau and Bent thought so too. Thoreau writes about juncos many times in his musings. He either refers to them as "slate-colored snow birds," or he uses Linnaeus' scientific name of F. hyemalis or just hyemalis. He liked to use the word "jingle" to describe their call (jingle like a fairy bell?). Here are a few references:
"March 23, 1852: I heard this forenoon a pleasant jingling note from the slate colored snow bird on the oaks in the sun on Minot's hill-side."  (Click here for a free ebook link to the quote.)
"March 28, 1853: The woods ring with the cheerful jingle of the F. hyemalis."   (Click here for a free ebook link to the quote.)
"April 1, 1854: ...I hear the jingle of the hyemalis from within the house, sounding like a trill." (Click here for a free ebook link to the quote.)  
I also like Thoreau's description of a snowbird:
"The straight edge of slate on their breasts contrasts remarkably with the white from beneath; the short, light-colored bill is also very conspicuous amid the dark slate: and when they fly from you, the two white feathers in their tails are very distinct at a good distance. They are very lively, pursuing each other from bush to bush." (Click here for a free ebook link to the quote.)
...and Arthur Bent, who I enjoy reading because he and his contributors provide colorful descriptions and histories of birds, reported a woman interpreted a snowbird's bell-like tinkling as that of a woodland sprite. From Bent's Life Histories of North American Birds (1968) on the Birds by Bent site (click here for the electronic version of the book, and here for the Dark-eyed Junco page):
"In notes she sent Mr. Bent, Mrs. Lawrence comments on "the lovely tinkling chorus by the juncos in early spring, as if a myriad of woodland sprites were shaking little bells in an intensive competition," and she syllabizes three variations of the junco song as follows: tilililililili, tililili-tililili, and tuituituitililili."

Females (like the one above) have lovely light grey feathers on top with light brown feathers mixed in on the head, shoulders and flanks. Males have pure charcoal or slate gray coats that look debonair. Their darker color accentuates the transition between the gray and white feathers on their bellies, which is very striking.  

By fluffing a bird can puff up feathers to keep the cold out. When fully puffed up, birds look like balls of fluff!
A Dark-eyed Junco puffs up against the cold while she breaks open a sunflower seed. 

...about Mark Catesby
Catesby's contributions to science are immense, and he was famous in his day--even Lewis and Clark knew of his work and used his book on their travels, but not many people know about him today. He was one of the first to paint America's birds, plants, reptiles and mammals (John White in 1585 was the first, click here to read about him), and Catesby was innovative because he was the first to paint them in their habitats--very exciting and interesting for his time. Europeans wanted to know what the flora and fauna in American looked like, and Catesby provided a glimpse. He was the go-to source until Alexander Wilson's American Ornithology (published between 1808 - 1814) and John James Audubon's Birds of America (published between 1827-1838) came along. Why does everyone know Audubon, but almost no one remembers Catesby? Possibly because Catesby published his work before binomial nomenclature (the two-part Latin or scientific naming system used by Linnaeus) was in use. Over time, scientists who didn't use binomial nomenclature in their work fell out of favor. On top of that, Catesby's books were very rare (only 180 copies of his book were printed) and he was a general naturalist studying and painting all of nature. Scientists were moving toward specialization, so over time, specialists considered his work old school, and it was forgotten. Audubon's work was extensive, expressive, and specialized, so he became the go-to source for ornithology (but it took about 100 years for that to happen!).                     more tidbit on Catesby before I go. Catesby is one of the first to write about bird migration. At the time, people still thought birds hibernated in caves or in the muck of ponds during the winter, but in 1725 Catesby wrote that after listening to bobolinks (he called them Rice Birds because they loved to eat rice) flying over his boat for three nights running, when it occurred to him they were probably flying seasonally to follow the rice crop (in v1 of The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands--click here for the original text).

...about the Mark Catesby books I bought
I bought all of the books on Amazon, and found them all helpful. Here is a quick review of each:

The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands: containing the figures of birds, beasts, fishes, serpents, insects, and plants: with their descriptions in English and French: v1 and v2 (1771)  (Eighteenth Century Collections Online Print Editions ECCO). This book is a photocopy of Catesby's original book. It is wonderful for the text, but it is not the highest quality reproduction. In areas you can't read the text, but I still love it because I enjoy seeing the original font. Don't look to this book for representations of his artwork, however. The paintings are basically black silhouettes copied on a photocopier).

Catesby's Birds of Colonial America; edited by Alan Feduccia (The University of North Carolina Press), 1985. I love this book because the reproductions of Catesby's birds are wonderful. The book starts with 20 full-color plates and the rest of the paintings are fine black and white reproductions. Feduccia eliminated the French descriptions, and lightly edited the text for modern usage. He also includes editor's notes on each bird with the bird's modern name (common and scientific), descriptions, historical context, and reference's to Lawson's birds too. This book focuses on the birds from Catesby's original books.

Empire's Nature, Mark Catesby's New World Vision; by Amy R.W. Meyers and Margaret Beck Pritchard (The University of North Carolina Press), 1998. A lot of information is in this book, and it's presented in a collection of essays by several contributors. I'm learning a lot and am enjoying the book...only half-way through!

The Curious Mister Catesby, a film by Cynthia Neal and David Elliott, 2007
When I ordered this title, I thought it was a book, so I was surprised to see it was a video. I'm glad it was a video because I really enjoyed watching it, and I learned a lot (I've watched it several times).

...and if you don't want to buy volume 1 and 2 of Catesby's Natural History, free online versions are available with high-quality scans:

Click here for an online version of the 1771 edition of the book.
Click here for an online scan of the painting of Catesby's snowbird in volume one.

...whew! What a rambly post this was, but worth it. There is so much to say on these subjects...more to come on Catesby!


TexWisGirl said...

they are adorable. we see a few here in winter, but i'm not sure i've ever heard the fairy bells. :)

Elaine said...

Delightful photos and xcellent post, Kelly! The mystery of where they go in the summer is of course no mystery now, but interesting to read of the speculation about them. Imagine how surprised the early naturalists would have been to discover these little birds flew so many miles north each year. Of course, I don't call them snowbirds, because they are always long gone from here when the snow flies. Every summer a pair nests under our deck. Of course, the deck is low enough and big enough that we never see the nest, just the comings and goings of mama and papa. I've heard their call likened to a telephone ringing, but I do like the fairy bells description better! I'm looking forward to hearing their jingle in a few months!

Roy Norris said...

Hi Kelly,
I have an original book (Popular Handbook of British Birds by P.A.D.Hollom) written in 1952.
It never seizes to amaze me how much work went into these old books. They didn't have the equipment that we have now or the knowledge about migration etc that we have to day, but the detail about birds and habits etc is quite amazing.
The Junco has very subtle colouring and certainly suits its snowy surroundings.

Kerri Farley said...

Great post! Sweet little birds!

Janice K said...

I liked your pictures. They seldom sit still long enough to catch them, and even then it is hard to see their eyes. I have always watched them from the inside, so I never really heard their call--I need to listen for them.

Montanagirl said...

We get them here in the winter. They're such pretty little birds, going about their business. They're ground feeders, but I have seen them go up on the feeder trays too. Very nice and informative post, Kelly!

Tammy@Simple Southern Happiness said...

thank you for the info on this Junco, Now I know what bird this is among all the others I have here. There is one more that I do not know the name of, I will have to search your blog to see if you have posted it. GREAT photography!!! YOU sure can capture GOD's creations with your lens.

Mary Ann Gieszelmann said...

Very interesting post with wonderful photos, Kelly!
You know, there is also a human "snowbird"--people who migrate to the south (to Florida or Arizona) to escape the winter in their home state. But I'm sure that is a much more recent use of the term.

Lois Evensen said...

Fascinating post! What a pretty little bird.

Kelly said...

...thank you, everyone!! Love these little snowbirds!!
and I love reading the descriptions of the birds in the older documentation.