Friday, December 5, 2008

No Snowflake The Junco

Friday, December 5, 2008
Snowflake at the suet dough in February 2008.

Some of you might remember my posts last winter about Snowflake the leucistic adult female dark-eyed junco who was a winterlong visitor in our yard.

Well, Snowflake did not show up in October, when the first returning juncos did. And now, it's December and we've got at least 30 dark-eyed juncos scattered around the various feeders and fields—but all of them have normal-looking plumage.

Which makes me wonder what happened to Snowflake. Did she make it through the spring and summer and now is spending this winter somewhere else?Did a sharp-shinned hawk get her? A house cat? Did she collide with a radio tower? Did she die of natural causes?—most passerines are lucky to survive more than just two years. Or is she just not back here yet? I'm hoping it's the last one on that list.

Dark-eyed juncos are considered short-distance migrants. The distance between their boreal forest breeding range and their wintering range pales in comparison to the migration of a blackpoll warbler, which also breeds in the boreal forest but migrates to South America. Most juncos spend the winter within the United States and Canada. Some juncos, such as those that I see in the West Virginia mountains each spring, don't migrate at all.
We've got plenty of "normal" juncos around this winter.

We could always tell Snowflake because she looked more like a snow bunting than a junco. She was a perfect "marker bird"—a bird with an obvious and unique physical character that allows you to identify it as an individual. Otherwise, most individual birds of a single species are hard to tell apart, unless you get a really close look and spend some time looking for subtle differences.
Snowflake looked like a snow bunting at first glance.

Bird banders love to tell stories about trapping ruby-throated hummingbirds or chickadees at a feeding station. They'll catch a dozen birds and band them, but still more unbanded birds keep showing up. It's pretty amazing when you realize just how many individual birds of a single species might be visiting your feeding station, bird bath, or garden. You might THINK that that is Mr. Reddy the cardinal who always shows up right after dawn on the hopper feeder. But it may only be one out of 17 different Mr. Reddys that come for an early meal.

Marker birds allow you to be sure you are seeing the same individual bird. Last winter I was home a lot finishing up a book project, so I got to know Snowflake's routine. In the morning she was in the weedy edge along the orchard. In late afternoon she'd come to the deck railing around back for some suet dough. At night she roosted in the brambles along the spring trail, down the hill behind our house.

Sitting here at my desk today, watching the snow dance down, I can see a small pod of juncos kicking through the mixed seed under the pines. I'd like to look out and see a mostly white one for the third winter in a row. Guess I'll keep watching and hoping.


On December 5, 2008 at 3:12 PM possumlady said...

Keeping my fingers crossed for a Snowflake sighting!! (of the avian variety, that is)

On December 5, 2008 at 4:53 PM Andy said...

Does anyone know if a bird can molt out of leucistic plumage? I'm not a biologist, but I can imagine a case where the leucism is the result of some dietary condition, maybe not enough of some nutrient in the bird's diet. Then something changes, the bird eats better, and has sufficient nutrition to molt into more standard issue feathers.

Am I totally off-the-wall here, or is there a possibility that Snowflake is back and you just can't recognize him/her?

On December 5, 2008 at 5:46 PM Bill of the Birds said...


I know she came back two years running. My guess is that once leucistic, always leucistic, but I am not a geneticist.

I'm hoping this blog post will smoke her out of her hiding place.

On December 5, 2008 at 10:17 PM Julie Zickefoose said...

I know there are instances where leucism is the result of injury to the follicles--the feathers will come in white at the injury site. But I'd be very surprised if a genetically leucistic individual could change its genes. Just Science Chimp speculation, mind you.

On December 5, 2008 at 10:20 PM A New England Life said...

Wow, she is beautiful! Hopefully she will come back for just one more year. I do love Junco's. They are so gentle and quiet.

I enjoy your blog : )


On December 5, 2008 at 10:56 PM Dawn Fine said...

Wow what an interesting looking junco
I hope you see the little snowflake again..
it was interesting reading all the knowledgeable comments...

On December 5, 2008 at 11:54 PM NW Nature Nut said...

I'd like to say Snowflake migrated to Oregon, but my little leucistic junco has less white than your Snowflake. I agree, it is fun to see birds you can distingish from others. Maybe he will still show up, you never know. (you can see a photo of "mine" posted on Nov.2)Thanks for sharing your birdfeeding stories. I have been enjoying the birdcam pics.

On December 6, 2008 at 7:08 PM Mel said...

I have a few regular visitors here, Amazilia amazilia, Vermilion Flycatcher, and a bunch of Bananaquit.
It's awesome to observe them and learn a bit more every time, how they move, where, when, the feeding, the fighting, the showing off...

On December 9, 2008 at 10:39 PM nina at Nature Remains. said...

We had a chickadee last winter with white tail feathers. I know how easily the feelings grow for one who is easily recognized--a way to establish a relationship when so many are so alike.

I have not seen our chickadee for months--I hope, as the feeders draw them close to the house, we will meet up again.
And I hope you find your Junco is back, too.

On December 11, 2008 at 10:20 AM dguzman said...

Oh no! Come back, Snowflake!

On December 14, 2008 at 1:07 AM Anonymous said...

We get the OREGON JUNCOS they will come to back yards for bird seed once saw one at alocal restruants parking lot scratching in agap between the concreat and assphualt looking for seeds or what ever

On November 1, 2014 at 8:44 AM PragerBirds said...

Thanks so much for this post from so many years ago. We had a leucistic junco in our yard this morning and your photos helped me confirm ID!