Think of a winter bird.
The Northern Cardinal, certainly. More cardinals have graced Christmas cards, their glass and plastic forms ornamenting trees, than anything else with feathers. The Black-capped Chickadee recalls white puffballs crying out dee dee dee dee from the clutches of snowy pine boughs. Then there is the woodpecker, more often heard than seen, that drums the heartbeat of the woods; the Blue Jay carries its shrill cry on the wing; and the Cedar Waxwing is the sublime winter postcard, a porcelain doll with wings and a berry eternally fixed in its beak.
The Dark-Eyed Junco, though, is the winter bird.
I found a pair of juncos in the yard the other day, and now there is no turning back on winter. Indian Summer afternoons in early October are falsehoods that excuse us into thinking that maybe, this time, we might skirt through the new year on milder weather. But the juncos don’t lie, and they don’t come here to escape the snowfall but presage it. While the neotropical birds—orioles, robins, warblers, and more—take flight for warmer climes, the dark-eyed junco is coming from breeding grounds at the edge of the Arctic Circle. After hundreds of miles these birds hop into my backyard, take stock of the feeders and the healthy abundance of perches exposed in now-bare trees, and decide Wisconsin is as far south as they need to travel to live comfortably through the depths of winter.
Those two will swell to a small tribe of dusky gray birds by the time the first blank of snow carpets the ground. Tails back, showing the white outer feathers, they bounce about the base of the feeder in search of loose seeds and flicking spent shells with their pink bills. While juncos will take a proper place on a feeder, they are first and foremost ground birds. A half-ounce of bird multiplied by one gregarious flock leaves quite an impression, flattening the snow underneath the feeders and branching out into small bird-footed highways that act as roadmaps to other migrants passing through the river valley.
Soon the feeders are filled with more than juncos: chickadees, redpolls, gold and house finches, pine siskins, the odd cardinal and nuthatch. Those others birds are transient feeders, though, missing for days at a time in the harshest weather. The juncos remain, picking at seed through falling snow and tittering happily on mornings so cold you have no choice but to draw the covers above your head and roll back over. In the still of winter juncos are constantly in motion. No wonder that feeders filled by morning are emptied by sundown. I trudge my own well-worn path through the snow from the garage to the backyard and re-fill them again by flashlight.
The junco might be the first to know when winter is over, when they sense those cold winds shifting north again to the Arctic. We are a distant second, so caught up in the scents and colors of the emerging spring we overlook the loss of the little drab bird until it is merely an afterthought in the backyard. We no longer see the junco, but rather the cardinal, the finches, the blue jay, and listen to the scolding chickadees and the drumming woodpeckers—all those winter birds that chose instead to remain.