It was a fine early December day — 18 degrees with partial sunshine and a howling wind. A new half-inch of snow covered the ground. I counted the birds at my feeders because it was a Project FeederWatch day. For over 20 years, two days a week from November until early April, I’ve been counting birds for this Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology program. On that day, I recorded a record 16 species of birds — 24 house finches, two American tree sparrows, a song sparrow, two white-throated sparrows, a swamp sparrow, 25 American goldfinches, 19 mourning doves, a pair of white-breasted nuthatches, a pine siskin, four tufted titmice, two black-capped chickadees, a male downy woodpecker, two red-bellied woodpeckers, a purple finch, and 50 dark-eyed juncos.
Fifty dark-eyed juncos! It was a challenge to count them as they swarmed over the ground and back steps beneath the feeders, looking like giant black and white ants, and pushed the other ground feeders to the periphery. I had hit an all time high junco count and the Project FeederWatch website questioned my number when I entered my results. That’s because over half of FeederWatch participants report six juncos or less. Last winter my average junco group was 40.2. The other bird species averaged .5 to 3 except for pine siskins (17.8) and American goldfinches (17.2). Furthermore, when we conducted our Christmas Bird Count on foot over our mountaintop property, we tallied 208 species. And, by January, sixty juncos were visiting my feeders.
According to most sources, winter junco flocks consist of 15 to 30 birds and settle on 10-acre territories. During the day, they go from food source to food source, looking for a variety of wild seed sources to sustain them through the winter. The millet, milo, and cracked corn they prefer at feeders merely supplement the 5000 seeds they must consume every day from wild sources such as lamb’s quarters, thistles, broom sedge, ragweed, foxtail, and chickweed. Our unshorn First and Far fields and home grounds provide a wealth of such seeds.
Then, as the day darkens, several juncos seek shelter in our juniper tree near the feeders, but most head for our three-acre Norway spruce grove at the top of First Field. One of my winter pleasures is sitting at dusk on Alan’s Bench, which is enclosed by spruces, and watching the juncos stream in from all directions. At first they “zeet, zeet” to protest my presence, but they soon settle down beneath the sheltering boughs.
We aren’t far from the nearest breeding area for dark-eyed juncos — the Allegheny High Plateau — so I suspect that’s where our juncos, at least the earliest arrivals in late September, come from. But as their numbers increase, many may be migrating from as far north as the boreal forests of Canada. Traveling from 30 to 200 miles a night, how far juncos migrate depends on the weather, the lateness of the season, and the amount of body fat they have stored. In Pennsylvania female juncos move southward ahead of males and adult females before young females. In fact, adult juncos winter farther south than youngsters and those young migrate later than the adults do. But we have plenty of the spiffy, dark gray to black males as well as the duller gray females and young, all of which have snowy white bellies.
When I first studied birds, our juncos were called slate-colored juncos. But in the 1970s, ornithologists lumped five species of juncos into one and renamed them dark-eyed juncos. However, the ornithologists designated those former five species — slate-colored, white-winged, Oregon, gray-headed and Guadalupe — as groups. Our slate-colored junco is by far the widest distributed of the groups, breeding from Alaska to Newfoundland, as far south as Texas and along the Appalachians to North Carolina and northern Georgia. Within the slate-colored hyemalis group are three subspecies— Junco hyemalis hyemalis, J.h.carolinensis, and J.h.cismontanus. Here in Pennsylvania we have both J.h.hyemalis and J.h.carolinensis, the former in the northern glaciated and high plateau areas, the latter in the more southern portions of the state, especially in the mountains of Westmoreland County at the Powdermill Nature Reserve, where they have carried out field and banding studies of juncos since 1983. Of course, for mere amateurs like me, telling these subspecies apart in the field is impossible.
Because our juncos reminded European taxonomists of their reed bunting, they named them Junco, which means “reeds” in Latin. Hyemalis is Latin for “winter.” But many folks still know dark-eyed juncos as “snowbirds.” Other popular names include “black snowbird,” “common snowbird,” and “eastern junco.” Henry David Thoreau, writing his journals in the mid-nineteenth century, referred to them as “blue snowbirds,” “slate-colored snowbirds,” and “slate-colored sparrows.” John James Audubon wrote in 1831 that “there is not an individual in the Union who does not know the little Snow-bird.” Probably they were called snowbirds because most people only saw them in winter when the birds left the forests for parks, rural roadsides, farms, and today for backyard birdfeeders.
Not only do juncos visit more feeders across the continent than any other species, but also they are incredibly abundant — an estimated 630 million strong. Because they flock together during the winter, their winter social behavior has been a popular subject for researchers. In these flocks, males dominate females, and within each sex, adults dominate youngsters. You can observe this at feeders when birds lunge at other birds and flick their tails, exposing their white outer tail feathers. Those males with the most white in their tails are the most dominant. Usually, this behavior occurs in early morning or late afternoon when they are feeding more heavily, especially when it is very cold or snowy. Those dominant birds feed in the middle of the food area, and it’s up to the subordinates to look out for predators. They also get less to eat, which is a problem if food is scarce, but if food is abundant, both subordinates and dominants thrive.
By March, junco males have joined our spring bird chorus, their trills making a “lovely tinkling chorus… as if a myriad of woodland sprites were shaking little bells in an intensive competition” Canadian naturalist-writer Louise de Kiriline Lawrence once wrote. The males leave ahead of the females and by late April, our last junco is gone. By the time the females arrive on their breeding grounds, the males have established a two to three- acre territory. At first, they chase returning females. But if one stays on a male’s territory, he begins courtship by fanning his wings and tail, continual hopping, and picking up nesting materials.
Those males with the most white in their tails are most attractive to females. They also have the highest testosterone levels. But do they make the best mates? According to researchers Ellen Ketterson and Joe McGothlin, that depends. Those males with the highest testosterone levels attract older, more experienced females because their songs are sweeter. They also produce more offspring. However, they are not very good fathers, and their offspring are smaller when they hatch and die at higher rates. The fathers are too busy displaying and chasing after other females to feed their mates or offspring as often as the less testosterone-charged males.
The dominant males also die sooner. Often, they are too busy showing off to be wary of predators. In addition, their elevated testosterone increases their stress, which leads to the production of a hormone called “corticosterone,” That hormone gives them quick energy even while it breaks down protein, leaving them with atrophied feathers, muscles, and organs.
Despite this dominant male junco angst, most pairs practice social monogamy and raise two families a year. The female chooses the nest site and builds the nest. Most sites are constructed on or near the ground in a bank or rock face, especially if grass or other vegetation overhangs it. The nest we found in Little Pine State Park along the Lake Shore Trail last May was in a road bank under a bower of dried leaves caught in several small branches. My husband Bruce, 13-year-old granddaughter Eva, and I saw a bird fly out of the bank. Eva quickly found and photographed the nest woven of dried pine needles, twigs, and grasses, which contained four pale blue eggs strongly marked with brown squiggles and a brown blotch at the large end. We stood quietly, waiting for its owner to return, and soon heard and then saw a scolding junco nearby. The park, a forested gem with a small dammed lake in Lycoming County, provides excellent habitat for nesting juncos.
Cordelia Stanwood, an amateur ornithologist and photographer who lived in coastal Maine during the early twentieth century, wrote that “the nest site varies according to its situation. I have seen juncos brooding amongst the roots of a growing clump of gray birches, partially under stumps and rocks, below a tuft of leaves, in a brush heap shaded by small evergreens, beneath bracken, and many within the side of a bank or knoll, the wall of a knoll covered with bird-wheat moss, or the side of a steep bank just under the overhanging sod [which] seems to be the most typical site for a junco nest. A depression is made or enlarged in the side of the bank or knoll, and the moss or overhanging sod form a natural roof.” Exactly, except that juncos also build unusual nests such as on a ledge beneath a house gable in Nova Scotia, in a half-pound tobacco can lying on its side in Saskatchewan, in a wind-vane bird feeder mounted on an eight-foot iron pipe in Olean, New York, and, for two years, in a hanging planter in Trucksville, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. The second year the female nested in April while Christmas greens were still in the planter and nested a second time, after the first nestlings fledged, in the planter when the greens were removed.
The female incubates the three to five eggs 12 to 13 days while the male warns of danger, keeps small birds from the nest, and tries to discourage eastern chipmunks, which are major nest predators. Red and gray squirrels, deer mice, white-footed mice, jumping mice and weasels also threaten eggs and nestlings in some areas.
After the junco eggs hatch, usually within a few hours of each other, the nestlings quickly mature as both parents stuff them with mostly insects and spiders. At 12 days of age, they leave the nest, although if they are disturbed, they can run off at nine days old. Fourteen days later, they are able to fly well and feed themselves.
Then they are on their own and later join winter flocks. It they are lucky they will evade a host of predators, including accipiters — especially sharp-shinned hawks — shrikes, owls, jays, feral and domestic cats particularly near bird feeders. More than once in the winter I’ve watched a sharpie catch, kill, pluck, and eat a junco near our feeders.
But such occasional predation doesn’t seem to shrink our junco population. Because they are such generalists in nesting habitat — breeding in coniferous or deciduous forests — and in winter habitat continent-wide, as well as in their food choices, dark-eyed juncos should remain a ubiquitous species for decades to come.
Ever since I read about Gordon Hempton’s One Square Inch of Silence project, I’ve been more keenly aware of our noisy world. Hempton, a sound ecologist, has been recording natural sounds for decades. Nicknamed Sound Tracker for his recordings, he laments that every decade our world becomes noisier. While city dwellers are acutely conscious of humanity’s din, even those of us who live in the country find it difficult to escape the sound of jet planes overhead, the whine of a chainsaw, the roar of an all-terrain vehicle, or the rumble of trucks and cars on nearby highways.
“Quiet is going extinct,” Hempton says. In 1998 he toured 15 states west of the Mississippi River and found only two places — remote parts of Colorado and Minnesota — that were free of human-induced noise for appreciable amounts of time. Even most of our national parks were and remain noisy.
There are no places left on earth completely free of human-created sounds, Hempton laments, and he estimates that only one-tenth of one percent of the earth’s land surface is silent for more than fifteen minutes. Traveling our country in search of one square inch where it was quiet most of the time, he found what he was listening for in the Hoh Rain Forest in Washington State’s Olympic National Park where 95 percent of the land is a protected wilderness. There, on Earth Day, 2005, he dedicated the red square stone that marks his One Square Inch of Silence, according to Kathleen Dean Moore, who accompanied him to the place and wrote “Silence like Scouring Sand,” in the November/December 2008 issue of Orion magazine.
“It’s an open glade, like the nave of a cathedral, carpeted in deep green moss and deer ferns,” she writes. Her description reminded me of the cross-country family camping trip we took back in 1981 and our visit to the Hoh Rain Forest on July 8. The Visitor Center was crowded, but by choosing the longer of two trails — the mere one-and-a-quarter-mile Spruce Trail — we were alone. As I wrote in my journal, “The rainforest was beautiful with enormous Sitka spruce trees, big leaf maples, and other tree species heavily draped with 70 species of epiphytes. Thick layers of moss clung to the tree trunks, which contributed to the awe we felt in that hushed forest.” Afterwards, we hiked a mile along the Hoh River in a fruitless search for harlequin ducks.
Reporter Douglas Gantenbein also accompanied Hempton in to his One Square Inch of Silence. They hiked three miles from the Hoh Visitor Center and reached their destination 100 yards off the Hoh River Trail. We must have been very close to what has become almost a sacred place for the many people who also have hiked into the area and left their comments in a small metal canister called the Jar of Quiet Thoughts.
Hempton thinks his one square inch can have an impact over 1,000 square miles, because not only does noise travel but so too does silence, and by defending his square inch he is also quieting a much larger area from thundering jets and other intruding noise. That is the theory, at least. Every month he sits next to the red stone and listens, and if he hears any mechanized noise, he records the date, documents the volume, and launches a complaint. Already, one airline has changed its route, but another has not. So even there, the roar of jet engines powering over the 7,000-foot high peaks in the Brothers Wilderness of the park is inescapable.
“It’s physically impossible for a jet to fly high enough that its engines can’t be heard on Earth,” Hempton tells Moore. I know we hear them constantly as they crisscross our sky. Apparently, we are on a major east/west flight path because our son Steve, flying east at 30,000 feet, reported seeing our property below. But small, low-flying, propeller planes, while much less frequent than jets, are even noisier.
We also hear traffic from Interstate 99 below our mountain, especially on clear, beautiful days and nights. Traffic is the largest noisemaker throughout the United States in cities as well as in the country. And here in Pennsylvania, the Keystone State, major highways and roads of all sizes are so numerous that we can never get far from one.
Luckily, because we have no close neighbors, we don’t have to contend with the constant din of gas-powered lawn mowers, leaf blowers, farm machinery, and other noisemakers that admittedly have made our lives physically easier, but often create havoc in our bodies. According to numerous studies, excessive noise damages the ears of 10 million people in our country, raises our stress levels, and can contribute to high blood pressure and even depression. While some humans try to cope by using ear plugs and protectors, soundproofing their homes, and switching to electric-powered lawn mowers or even manual ones, for many people noise equals excitement. And they don’t mind sharing their music, loud machines, and even their shouting with the rest of us.
I never realized how noisy our world was until I spent several days in 1985 in the high Andes Mountains of Peru. At 14,000 feet, the silence was amazing. In places where there were people, they went quietly about their work of herding animals, spinning wool, and washing clothes. No planes flew overhead; no cars or trucks roared past. We heard every birdsong and the high-pitched whistles of the vicunas.
In contrast to that, a couple years later, I accompanied a public television crew to several Pennsylvania natural places I had written about. I remember the frustration of the sound cameraman because we had to wait many long minutes to film without the sound of traffic on nearby country roads or planes overhead.
No matter where we go in Pennsylvania, it is difficult to escape from human-induced noise. Yet I’m convinced that is why many people take up such solitary quiet hobbies as fly fishing and archery hunting. Others of us escape our noisy world by walking in the woods, canoeing or kayaking in quiet waters, or sitting in tree stands listening and watching for deer. Hempton suggests that all of us who seek silence should practice hearing like a deer, something every good hunter already knows.
“Deer listen in 360 degrees,” he says and to imitate them he advises us to go into the woods alone, wear quiet clothing such as cotton or wool, place ourselves near a tree or other object that will reflect sound towards us, create an irregular shape with our bodies, so we will blend into the landscape, stick foam earplugs into our ears before we begin to listen and then take them out in order to hear softer natural sounds, and move our heads slightly every so often, like deer rotate their ears. Moving even an inch may change how and what we hear, according to Hempton. And so, as often as possible, when I go out in our forest, I try to find my own square inch of silence, if only for a few minutes, and listen like a deer.
On Sunday mornings, before the trains begin whistling our crossing at the base of our road, I can find perfect peace deep in our mature forest beside our stream. Listening carefully, I can hear the pitch of the stream changing as water flows over and around its rock-strewn bottom. Sitting on Turkey Bench above the stream one Indian summer day in early November it was so quiet that I could hear the crackling of leaves as they sifted down one by one in the still air.
On another fine November day, I sat in the black cherry woods with my back against a tree trunk. A couple chipmunks discovered me and started their warning chipping call. Another chipmunk ventured close and ducked into a nearby tree crevasse before emerging and running in the opposite direction. Then, a ruffed grouse landed and quickly flew off again, but a few minutes later, a second grouse took off behind me. For a few minutes, I had become part of the natural landscape.
Often, I need the sounds of nature — a hard rain or thundering wind — to mask humanity’s noise. I used to dislike the wind. Now I embrace it, especially on early November days when it sends eastern golden eagles heading south above Sapsucker Ridge.
Fog often dampens sound, and I walk for miles through a specter-filled forest, billowing white around the black, uniquely shaped trees, and wait for the occasional deer to loom up on the trail in front of me.
A snow-covered landscape also absorbs sound. Last November, on a cold day after a light snow, I encountered a buck 40 feet below me on the trail contemplatively chewing his cud. He looked straight at me, but even when I slowly raised my binoculars to ascertain that he had only one tall, curved antler on either side of his head, he never moved. We continued watching each other for several minutes before he roused himself, turned, and ran silently down the trail. Perhaps, he too was enjoying the serenity and sunshine of the peaceful morning.
For more about noise pollution, The Allegheny Front, an environmental public radio program out of Pittsburgh, had a special on it during the week of 8/19/2009 — you can listen online. The page also has links to several groups interested in noise pollution including the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse and The Right to Quiet Society for Soundscape Awareness and Protection whose motto is “Hear Nature Again.” The latter has a Noiseletter, as they whimsically call it, filled with articles on a variety of noise-related subjects, which you can read online.
Photos by Dave Bonta except where noted otherwise. Click on small photos to see larger versions.