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Backyard bird who's a master of diversity

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A subtle bird, the dark-eyed junco is smaller than a house sparrow and has plumage that matches the muted palette of the winter landscape. This time of year, flocks of juncos can be found visiting local lawns and bird feeders. If a junco is startled and suddenly takes flight, you'll see a flash of white tail feathers. Otherwise, Junco hyemalis seems content to forage demurely for seeds without a noisy fuss or showy display. The connection we make between juncos and winter is reflected both in the Latin name and in the more common "snow bird," as they are called in some areas of the U.S. The dark-eyed junco is widespread throughout the continent. By a recent estimate, there are about 630 million dark-eyed juncos from Mexico to Canada.

Although juncos are unobtrusive, they've caught the attention of ornithologists and researchers in animal behavior. In fact, for a century, they've been the objects of scientific study and speculation precisely because they are fairly tame ground feeders who are easy to handle and thrive in captivity.

Studying juncos may be easy; identifying them is not. Juncos from one region to another vary considerably in appearance. Besides our local slate-colored dark-eyed junco, there is the pink-sided junco, the Oregon junco, the gray-headed junco, and the white-winged junco. Yet all these juncos belong to a single species. That is, despite their disparate appearance, they are able to interbreed and do so at the borders of their respective regions. Interestingly enough, measured by the timescale of evolution, the junco's diversification across a variety of environments has been been rapid and recent.

Juncos are so popular in scientific circles that they have gained the distinction of starring in a film. The Ordinary Extraordinary Junco, produced by Indiana University, is an engaging and fascinating look at some of the "races" of junco, their natural habitats, and the people who study them. The 88 minute film is available for free at: http://juncoproject.org/videos/

A note to citizen scientists (whose data is used by professional ornithologists): The 114th Christmas Bird Count will take place from December 14, 2013 through January 5, 2014. To learn how to participate visit: http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count

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